Relinking with ICRC

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Last Thursday I had an hour-long discussion with Pascal Mauchle, the head of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Philippines for over a year now.

Mr. Mauchle initiated the meeting, and although it was our first conversation we seemed to hit it off immediately like friends of long standing. The meeting revived my personal interactions with previous ICRC delegation heads beginning in 1978, when I was held as a political detainee (for over 9 years) by the Marcos dictatorship.

The ICRC is the independent, impartial and neutral organization, established in Geneva in 1863, whose “exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, and to provide them with assistance.”

Although it has worked in the Philippines for 50 years, its permanent presence here began only in 1982.

In previous meetings with the ICRC delegation as detainees, we talked mainly about civil and political rights, specifically of political prisoners, and of ways to improve our living conditions and access to essential services, and to facilitate visits by relatives from far-off places.

After I regained my freedom, the ICRC and I kept in touch until I became a member of the House of Representatives. Beyond mutual updating, we discussed the applications of international humanitarian law in the context of the protracted armed conflict between the government and the Left revolutionary forces, the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, and the ICRC’s important role in ensuring the safe release of military officers and soldiers held as “prisoners of war” by the New People’s Army.

Last Thursday Mr. Mauchle updated me about the ICRC’s broadened operations in the country in recent years, about which I wasn’t aware. For instance, last year it began doing the following:

1. Support farming communities in areas of armed conflict.

• In Las Navas, Northern Samar, ICRC started providing 160 metric tons of high-quality rice seeds among 1,907 farming households in all the 53 barangays. Sown in December, the seeds grew into palay stalks that matured and yielded a bountiful harvest by March.

Prior to the ICRC assistance, rice crops took five months to mature, with low yields because of poor seed stocks from previous crops planted through a crude cultivation method called payatak. Absent a plow, a carabao was made to trample on the wet soil until it turned into mud suitable for sowing. Without irrigation facilities, the farmers depend on rain to grow their crops.

• In Surigao del Sur, the ICRC supplied 653 farming families in three barangays with high-quality corn seeds. In cooperation with the University of Southern Mindanao, it provided specialized training to the farmers on how to properly manage their farms.

• In Central Mindanao, the ICRC donated seeds, farm tools, hand tractors (kuliglig) and carabaos to farming communities, and established corn mills so that the harvested corn could be ground before being sold at the public market.

• Fishermen in North Cotabato were beneficiaries of these ICRC donations: 276 paddle boats, fishing nets and accessories, plus a motor boat each for the three beneficiary communities for hauling their catch faster to the marketplace.

• In Pikit, North Cotabato, for several years a refugee area for internally displaced families, the ICRC is constructing a 35-kilometer water system that will supply safe drinking water to 11 barangays.

2. Improve living conditions of detainees in jails.

• To help address the causes and consequences of overcrowding in jails, the ICRC serves in the secretariat of Task Force: Katarungan at Kalayaan. This body was convened by the Supreme Court to monitor the status and conditions of detainees in the Manila City Jail and improve the processing and disposal of cases.

Prioritized are cases of those who are elderly, mentally ill, or who have been detained longer than required had the cases against them been promptly adjudicated.

• The ICRC has renovated or improved facilities in 16 jails: safe water supply, septic-tank construction, ventilation, sleeping facilities (in many jails inmates take turn sleeping on very limited floor space), kitchens and infirmaries. Benefitting from these are 6,400 detainees.

• To meet the international standards for tuberculosis infection control, the ICRC expanded and renovated a 60-bed infirmary in the overcrowded Quezon City Jail.

(Question: Why didn’t the QC government, given its vaunted huge revenues and savings, not undertake this project?)

• At the Security Intensive Care Area in Camp Bagong Diwa, where 405 detainees are held, the ICRC overhauled the water and sanitation facilities (installed a new water-distribution network, built a septic tank, replaced toilet bowls, floor tiles, drains, waste and vent pipes for each of the 112 prison cells).

Regarding its support for farming communities in armed-conflict areas, Mr. Mauchle made it clear ICRC wasn’t engaged in “development” but in purely humanitarian actions, as per its mission. He disassociated these from the P-Noy government’s “peace and development” counterinsurgency plan.

I believe him.

What the ICRC intervention in socio-economic affairs highlights is the national and local governments’ failure to address the people’s basic needs to survive. And not only in conflict areas.

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June 1, 2013

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