ICRC turns 150, is 30 years old in India


New Delhi: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) turns 150 Sunday but its first mission to India took place in 1917 and it formally set up presence here only in 1982.

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The ICRC had to wait until June 1995 to sign a MoU with the India government to gain access to people arrested and detained in Jammu and Kashmir.

However, ICRC’s first mission to India was on Feb 12, 1917, in connection with restoring contact between people separated by World War I.

It was in January 1917 that ICRC delegates in Cairo got a cable from Geneva, their headquarters, to inspect camps of prisoners of war (POWs) as well as civilian prisoners in India and Burma (now Myanmar).

According to ICRC, the delegates sailed through the Suez Canal to reach Bombay (now Mumbai) the next month.

Their arrival marked the start of ICRC’s journey on Indian soil, the ICRC said.

The delegates met Viscount Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India, in Delhi.

In Rajputana, they visited a camp in Sumerpur in March 1917. It held 3,366 prisoners, dominantly Mesopotamian (modern day Iraq) Arabs.

The delegates also visited Turkish POWs in a camp at Bellary in Karnataka and a camp in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for POWs captured in Mesopotamia.

Explaining the work of the delegates, Mary Werntz, currently the head of the ICRC in New Delhi, said their mission was to see if detainees were treated with dignity.

They would check barrack premises, sleeping, clothing and sanitation facilities, access to exercise and fresh air, medical services, food and other details.

Efforts were made to ensure that the detainees had the right to practise their religion and could avail themselves of financial support from their government.

Many camps visited by the delegates housed civilians, mostly Germans and Austrians who came under suspicion due to possible Nazi links.

After spending two months travelling across the length and breadth of India, the Swiss delegates left for Burma.

Said Marek Resich, the ICRC communication coordinator here: “More than 95 years since ICRC’s first mission stepped on Indian soil, we have continued to offer our services through different political seasons.”

These, he said, included the bloodshed that followed India’s independence and the India-Pakistan border conflicts.

“And over the last 30 years, it’s been a journey of strengthening our efforts to protect and assist victims of armed violence in the country and to engage in dialogue with people,” he added.

ICRC operations now visit detainees in Jammu and Kashmir. It also supports the Indian Red Cross Society.

The ICRC drives its international mandate for its work from the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

It has delegations in over 60 countries around the world and activities in more than 80 countries.