Saturday, June 18, 2005

Red Cross hits back at U.S. Republican critic

Red Cross hits back at U.S. Republican critic

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA – The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hit back at a U.S. Republican report which questioned its impartiality, dismissing the accusations as false and unsubstantiated.

ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger vowed the Swiss-based agency would stick to its principles of neutrality and expressed confidence the United States would remain its top donor.

A policy adviser for the U.S. Senate Republican majority said this week the ICRC had lost its impartiality and was advocating positions at odds with U.S. interests.

'The paper's purpose appears to be to discredit the ICRC by putting forward false allegations and unsubstantiated accusations,' Kellenberger told a news briefing.

The humanitarian agency has visited foreign terrorism suspects held by U.S. forces in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of its regular operations.

Kellenberger denied ICRC staff had compared U.S. soldiers to Nazis and that the organisation had leaked any confidential reports submitted to U.S. authorities on its prison visits.

A confidential ICRC memorandum which appeared in the New York Times last November accused the U.S. military of tactics 'tantamount to torture' on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay – an accusation rejected by the Pentagon.

The ICRC regularly pays extensive visits Guantanamo Bay, which holds 520 people detained during the 2001 U.S. war to oust al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban from Afghanistan and in other operations in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

It also visits 10,000 inmates in Iraq and a few weeks ago visited deposed leader Saddam Hussein.

Kellenberger, a former Swiss diplomat, stressed the 'good and trustful relations' with the U.S. government, despite 'differences of view'.

The United States had contributed 167 million Swiss francs ($131 million) towards the ICRC's 940-million-franc budget last year, making it the largest contributor once again.

'It is even likely that the American contribution will be higher this year than last year,' he said.

The report was written by Dan Fata, who directs national security studies for the Republican Policy Committee, a group chaired by influential Senator John Kyl.

It accused the ICRC of reinterpreting international law 'so as to afford terrorists and insurgents the same rights and privileges as the military personnel of countries like the United States, who have signed the Geneva Conventions'.

But Kellenberger said the ICRC's independence was key to getting access to civilians and detainees caught up in conflicts. It deploys 12,450 aid workers in 79 countries.