Jean-Jacques Fresard, the Lebanon chief of the International Committee
the Red Cross, leaves tomorrow after having achieved what he calls the
biggest challenge of the year: the successful swap between Lebanon and
"It took more than nine months to negotiate with the Israeli and Lebanese
governments for last weekís swap," said Fresard. "The problem was that while
we were the neutral intermediary between the two governments, many of our
normal activities were suspended."
The ICRC is in Lebanon not to organise exchanges of prisoners but because
its raison díêtre is to work where there is armed conflict, like in south
"We are here to make sure that international instruments, namely the Geneva
conventions, are respected by the warring parties and to protect civilians
living in occupied territories," he said.
Although ICRC assignments are generally for two to three years, the Swiss
Fresard has been in Lebanon for only one year. After a career spanning 18
years with the ICRC, he is leaving because of a "very interesting
opportunity to work with the United Nations" at their New York headquarters.
This isnít Fresardís first time in Lebanon. He was here as a tourist before
the civil war and then with the ICRC after the June 1982 Israeli invasion.
He describes that period as very difficult from both a security and
emotional point of view.
"It was the time of the massacres. There were hundreds of casualties. When
we got to the Sabra and Chatilla camps after, there were bodies everywhere."
One of the main problems in the south now is the Khiam prison, according to
Fresard. Although it has existed since 1985, the ICRC was only allowed
access in 1995.
"Weíre the only body that has access to Khiam. This is something we do,
visit prisoners of war and political and security detainees. We visit more
than 100,000 such people all over the world every year," he said.
Since the botched Insariyeh raid in September when 12 Israeli soldiers were
killed, and the start of negotiations for the swap, Israel decided that ICRC
could no longer visit Khiam.
"We have not gone there and neither have the detaineesí families in nine
months. This was the main consequence of the entire situation," he said,
adding that "the good news is that we and the families will be able to go
back very soon, hopefully in the next few days."
ICRCís visits are aimed at examining the conditions of prisonersí lives,
ensuring that they are not ill treated, are properly fed, and receiving
needed medical treatment.
"We make recommendations on areas which are not acceptable and follow up by
applying pressure again and again on both the Israeli government and the SLA
(South Lebanon Army) which runs Khiam," he said.
Unlike Amnesty which does not have access to Khiam but goes public with its
findings, the ICRC does things differently: the organisation makes visits on
a regular basis but its findings are not made public.
"Going public with our knowledge would jeopardise our ability to visit other
prisons. When we make a deal with a government, one of the conditions is
confidentiality. If we went public, they would never allow us back in
again," he said.
"Iíve visited many prisons and know that our presence makes a difference,
even if itís small," he added.
Fresard explained that it is not the ICRCís role to question if an occupying
power has the right to arrest people. What it does question is how people
are being treated once they are in prison, even from the legal point of
"One of the problems with Khiam is that people are being held there without
having seen a lawyer, without being sentenced. This is something we have
discussed with the occupying power. Of course people can be arrested but
they canít just be kept there for years and years. Israel has admitted
keeping Lebanese in Israel as hostages, as bargaining chips for future
exchanges of prisoners. This is not acceptable," he said.
ICRC became involved in the swap when the organisation was approached by
both governments, Israel first, then Lebanon.
According to Fresard, the Israeli government did not want to negotiate with
any militia or party; they wanted to deal with the Lebanese government.
Consequently, Fresardís main focal point in Lebanon was prime minister Rafik
"He was the negotiator of this whole operation but he could not have
achieved this without consulting Hizbullah and Amal," said Fresard. "I have
been in touch with Amal and Hizbullah all this time because we have working
relationships with them in the south. But the chief negotiator was premier
Speaker Nabih Berri may have wanted a better deal, but didnít make it hard
on the ICRC.
"Iím sure he didnít want to jeopardise the deal. All the parties on the
Lebanese side wanted it to work because it was a good deal," he said.
Fresard confirmed that Hariri chose the detainees to be released not
according to what party they belonged to, but according to who had been
imprisoned the longest.
"It was the smart way to do it and he more or less got this. The principle
was accepted by the Israeli side, but they vetoed a couple of names for
reasons which they did not disclose," explained Fresard.
In Khiam today there are still about 120 detainees, along with 40 Lebanese
citizens held in Israel. According to international law, they should be
released right away, especially those who have not yet been sentenced.
"If we were in a perfect world," said Fresard, "they would be released
immediately. But the reality is that many wonít be released unless another
exchange takes place."
For that to happen, Lebanon would have to produce its only bargaining chip:
Ron Arad, a pilot who was captured by Amal in 1986 and whose whereabouts are
"Israel wants to know where Arad is, whether heís alive, and still in
Lebanon," said Fresard, adding that those who come forward with Arad could
get an "incredible deal".
"Prisoners are being held in Israel for that purpose. And Iím sure that
Khiam would no longer exist if somebody produces Ron Arad now."
Asked if the ICRC had faced any restrictions in Lebanon, Fresard said that
the organisation was completely free to travel in all territories in Lebanon
and is respected by all parties. "I know for a fact that at times Hizbullah
was ready to launch an operation and would stop in order not to harm any of
The outgoing ICRC chief said that he hopes to return to Lebanon one day when
it has complete sovereignty over its entire territory. "I was here before,
during and after the war. The next time I hope it will be when the
occupation is over."