Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Delegation in Baku Elena Ajmone Sessera tells Azernews about the activity of the delegation in Azerbaijan, touching upon works done so far and etc.
Question: You have become the head of ICRC delegation in Azerbaijan recently. What were the main challenges you faced upon your appointment?
Answer: I started my work as the head of the ICRC delegation in Azerbaijan in March and soon after, the April escalation happened. That was challenging for me, being new in the country, I still had to learn a lot about the context, but my previous operational experiences helped me to quickly adapt ICRC response to the situation. We did our best to support civilians in need on both sides of the frontline and still continue our activities to alleviate the suffering of those who face challenges in their everyday life due to the proximity to the conflict. The ICRC has expanded its budget for 2016 to meet the needs of civilians who suffered in the April escalation.
Q.: ICRC is recognized as a key liaison organization on the issues of POWs and hostages. Can you summarize or describe your activities?
A.: ICRC has a long history of visiting Prisoners of War (PoW) and people detained in several countries in the world. It all started at the end of the 19th century with a legal mandate provided to ICRC in the 1929 Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, later replaced by the third Geneva Convention that is still valid today. The aim of the visits is to monitor treatment of detainees and conditions of detention, while ensuring that people detained are able to maintain contact with their families. The ICRC has standard visiting procedures, which must be followed during all our detention visits. Our findings are treated confidentially and shared only with those responsible for the detention, in the frame of a bilateral, confidential dialogue. The ICRC carries out private interviews with people detained. If detainees agree, the ICRC can raise their concerns with those responsible for the detention.
In the early years of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there were many captured followed in some cases by exchanges and returns, at times done privately by families themselves who negotiated the release with private people. Many were done without the involvement of ICRC. In that chaotic time, the term "hostages" was used.
However, the term hostage when referred to militaries taking part in the hostilities, or civilians of the other side that represent a threat for the military effort or have contributed to it, captured by the other side, is not the right term. The capture and detention of persons in relation with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as any other conflict, is lawful if carried out in full respect of the provisions of Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law. The sides have the right to capture militaries and civilians of the other side. The aim of such provision is to reduce the number of dead. Militaries have the right to kill their enemy, this is the first thing to bear in mind in a conflict, and they have the right and obligation to capture the enemy when the latter does not represent a threat (wounded, disarmed for example). The first target in a war is to reduce the power of the other side. As the main aim of the Geneva Conventions is to reduce unnecessary suffering and loss of life, capturing instead of killing, whenever possible, is a way to reach the scope of weakening the enemy while sparing lives.
We see that the word hostage is still used, and not only in relation with Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This may lead to confusion and is legally not correct. It is advisable to use the terminology of the Geneva Conventions: Prisoners of war, civilian internees. When referring to non-international armed conflict the term generally used is: people deprived of their liberty in relation to the conflict
Q.: What cooperation do you have with the State Commission on POWs, Hostages and Missing Persons?
A.: We work closely with the State Commission and especially its Working Group to clarify the fate of missing people in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Jointly with the State Commission and Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society, between 2008 and 2011 Detailed Data about the missing people was collected and is gradually being processed by the State Commission. In addition, we are collecting biological reference samples from the relatives of those who are still missing. This is done together with the State Commission and the hospital of the State Security Service. The objective is to preserve important DNA information that may be used to identify human remains in the future.
We are following this procedure with the families and the State Commission, here and on the other side. It will take many years to collect the samples from the close living relatives of all those who went missing. While it is impossible to guarantee that all families will eventually receive an answer one day, it is still important for families to participate to increase their chances to positively identify human remains, which could be exhumed in the future.
The collection of the biological samples from the families of the missing has been completed in Baku and we have started it in Sumgayit. Gradually the relatives of missing persons living in other parts of the country will be approached.
Q.: The fate of Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev is a great concern for the public of Azerbaijan. What is ICRC doing to assist them and to return them back?
A.: ICRC, has a specific mandate and working modality when it comes to visiting people deprived of freedom, be it in relation to the conflict or not. We work within our boundaries given to us by States through the Geneva Conventions, which practically all States have signed and ratified.
ICRC visits the two Azerbaijanis detained in Nagorno-Karabakh regularly to assess their conditions and treatment in detention and keeps them in contact with their families. Maintaining family contacts is done through letters exchanged between the families and the detainees (RCMs).
The decision to keep or release detainees belongs to the parties in the conflict and not to the ICRC. Only after a detaining authority has decided to release and return someone, then the ICRC steps in as a neutral intermediary to facilitate the hand over at the border or the Line of Contact.
Q.: Can you help us understand the difference between the lists of missing people of State Commission and ICRC? What is being done to minimize the difference?
A.: ICRC offices in Baku, Yerevan and NK register missing people when their families approach the office looking for information about their missing relative. Based on this, the ICRC registered around 4,500 people who went missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, on the sides. The ICRC's criteria for registration is not the same as that of the State Commissions and therefore ICRC's numbers are not identical to those of the sides to the conflict. This is normal and acceptable because the ICRC and the State Commissions do not have exactly the same criteria. It is needed to add that as a result of constant collaboration and information sharing, the difference between the lists has decreased significantly.
Q.: How many persons have been released from captivity through the assistance of ICRC Baku Office since it started working in Azerbaijan?
A.: Our role is to facilitate the hand over between the sides once the decision of releasing them has been taken at the political level.
In terms of handover, we estimate that over 700 people have been returned home with the support of the ICRC offices in NK, Baku and Yerevan since the beginning of ICRC activities in 1992. However, consider that in the early years of the war, things were very chaotic and many people were being captured and returned. ICRC does not have detailed statistics from that time, so we cannot give an exact number.
Q.: Could you please, explain which new elements do you plan to implement to raise the efficiency of your activities in the exchange of captives between Azerbaijan and Armenia?
A.: I do not see today a lack of efficiency in terms of ICRC activities when it comes to facilitate the handover/return of people detained, once we obtain the green light from all sides to go ahead. Our role is rather to remind all sides of their obligations under IHL when it comes to people detained, and encourage them to respect them, what we constantly do.
The legal basis for ICRC activities in this domain is international humanitarian law (IHL) which regulates the conduct of war and seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting persons who are not participating in hostilities. All our actions are based on such provisions and on our ability to negotiate with all sides for their full respect. Hence, rather than ICRC efficiency I would speak of political will of all sides to respect their obligations under IHL. By the way, IHL does not consider exchange of captives but handover. This is because the obligation to release “as soon as circumstances allow or latest at the end of hostilities” is a unilateral obligation that does not require reciprocity. Moreover, the person should not be considered as a bargain tool as it would happen in an exchange.