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Urban violence
War by any other name


As the world grows increasingly urban, violence in many cities is reaching epidemic proportions. Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone. With rapid urbanization, the context for violence is changing, creating new challenges for those giving aid and working to prevent conflict.

IN THE MORRO DOS MACACOS slum of northern Rio de Janeiro, two rival drug gangs are locked in an intense gun battle. Heavily armed police teams — equipped with automatic weapons and armoured vehicles — respond in force, moving through busy streets and labyrinthine alleyways with guns drawn.

Suddenly, bullets tear into a police helicopter hovering overhead. Shot in the leg, the pilot loses control. The chopper crashes to the ground and bursts into flames, killing two officers. Nearby, the streets echo with the crack of automatic weapon fire, smoke pours out of burning city buses and terrified residents flee for their homes.

The Brazilian city is not at war, but there are places where it looks that way. Armed gangs control territories in many of Rio’s favelas or slums. Regular shoot-outs occur between gang members, police and militias. Nearly 5,000 people were murdered in 2008. And in some of the most violent neighbourhoods, the human suffering is comparable to that of an armed conflict.

After the downing of the helicopter, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo referred to the situation as A Guerra do Rio, or Rio’s war. According to The Guardian in the UK, Oderlei Santos, spokesman for Rio’s military police, responded by saying: “Our operations will only cease when these criminals are captured, arrested or killed in combat.”

The spiral of violence

Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery. A combination of factors comes into play. Urban centres are undergoing unprecedented growth due to natural population increase and migration from the countryside. According to numerous reports, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and nearly all the population growth of the next two decades will take place in the cities of developing countries.

One billion people already live in slums. With limited employment available, many resort to informal, even criminal, ways to survive. A booming international drug trade pays for ever more sophisticated weapons, from semi-automatic assault rifles to rocket-propelled grenades.

State services no longer reach many poor neighbourhoods, due to security risks. Children with little or no access to schooling are recruited into gangs. High population density, class disparity, heterogeneous communities, xenophobia, marginalization, police brutality and overflowing prisons all contribute to the spiral of violence. At times, the rates of homicide are greater than the death tolls from armed conflicts.

“We’ve gone past the stage of asking if it is a real phenomenon or not — it’s right in front of us,” says Pierre Gentile, head of protection of the civilian population unit in the ICRC’s operations department. “The question is simply to what extent we should get involved.”

Across the Movement, there’s a growing call to do more: to both assist victims caught in the crossfire of urban conflict and better prevent urban violence by getting at the root causes.

At the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2007, urban violence became a major focus of debate. The discussion led to the IFRC developing a draft strategy entitled IFRC Global Strategy on Violence Prevention, Mitigation and Response 2010–2020.

National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, meanwhile, are responding with projects and programmes that range from teaching first aid to conflict resolution, building up self-esteem, training in new skills and other strategies to prevent or reduce urban violence in a lasting way (see Goals for peace, pages 24–25).

The issue is more delicate for the ICRC, which has a mission to act in conflicts and other situations of violence. While it has a mandate, given by states, within the sphere of international humanitarian law (IHL) to act in armed conflicts, the organization also has a right to get involved in what is termed “other situations of violence”. This gives it the opportunity to respond when and where its international profile, experience, independence and neutrality can bring added value to people in need.

Gaining respect

Six years ago, when Michel Minnig arrived as head of the ICRC’s regional delegation in Buenos Aires, he was struck by the violence in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. He noted how similar it was in scale and dynamics to cases of armed conflict that the ICRC regularly encounters: organized armed groups controlling well-defined territories, regular open hostilities with military-grade weapons and grave humanitarian consequences for victims. Minnig was one of the early proponents of ICRC action “to restore a certain normalcy” to the lives of Rio’s inhabitants.

And so in December 2008, the organization launched a pilot project in the city’s worst slums. For more than a year, the ICRC, the Brazilian Red Cross and other local associations have been working together in these favelas of the favelas — the most neglected, difficult and dangerous part of each favela.

“We started by conducting first-aid training for residents of these communities so everybody could see the work we were doing,” says Minnig. “In this way, we built up acceptance little by little, so that now we can penetrate further, touch upon more serious problems and be respected, rather than being a target for the gangs, police or army.”

Since 1998, the ICRC has been working with Brazil’s police and armed forces, training them to integrate international human rights standards and humanitarian principles into their work.

But reaching an understanding on human rights with gangs in Rio presents a whole new challenge for humanitarian workers. The gangs have no obvious political objective, no evident interest in over-throwing the state. Their motives are mainly to make money by selling drugs and to control territory so they can freely pursue their goals. However, should this make a difference in whether or not the ICRC gets involved?

Analysis of the motives of violence is not the basis that justifies the intervention of the institution, it is rather the humanitarian needs provoked by them, says Angela Gussing, ICRC deputy director of operations in charge of global affairs and policy.

“Action by the Red Cross has never been linked to motivation, in terms of conflict,” she says. “We have never said we intervene because this is a noble motive and another one is not. It’s violence, it’s organized, it causes humanitarian consequences; we try to alleviate humanitarian consequences and to prevent them from occurring or reoccurring.”

The approach, however, is adapted to the particular situation. In Rio de Janeiro, the ICRC, along with Brazilian Red Cross volunteers from the favelas, respond to basic humanitarian needs — vaccination, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, TB and first-aid training — all in neighbourhoods generally unreached by basic healthcare services.

“We took dengue fever as an issue that we could address as a vector programme to get into the favela by forming and training people from the community,” says Felipe Donoso, ICRC head of delegation in Rio de Janeiro.

The programmes helped the ICRC gain acceptance, build community networks and begin helping vulnerable people find alternatives to violence. “Some of the people in the favelas are extremely vulnerable,” Donoso says. “So the question is how can they be integrated into systems where they can receive assistance and they will have a chance not to become a victim — or an actor — of armed violence?”

Not everybody at the ICRC is convinced of the necessity to deal with urban violence outside of armed conflict. Jacques de Maio, head of operations for South Asia, wonders if this type of action could detract from the organization’s main mission.

“In a country at peace, where international humanitarian law is not applicable, where there isn’t a situation of armed violence that offers conditions for the ICRC to provide its services in a classic way, the question is: on what basis, by what criteria and in what manner should the ICRC engage its resources and its institutional credibility?” he asks. “It could potentially create a certain incoherence with what we do globally and use resources that could be better employed in line with our core mandate elsewhere in the world.”

There is general agreement that potential interventions must be decided case by case, and clear objectives defined, before the ICRC takes part in any such operation. There must be a clear humanitarian need resulting from organized armed violence and that violence must be of a recurrent, not sporadic, nature. There are important questions to be considered as well. What are the dynamics of the violence? Is there control by organized groups over an area or population? Are there leaders with whom the ICRC can engage in dialogue? Do we have a presence on the ground there already?

“We are establishing criteria for interventions,” says Pierre Gentile. “In addition to the idea that the violence must have a certain level of organization, the humanitarian consequences must also be serious. Then there are distinctions to make according to the country — is there already an efficient mechanism for a country’s authorities to monitor and control the situation? Would we have a real added value? The ICRC shouldn’t try to be everywhere at once, but only where we can be useful.”

The legal question is a complicated one, too. Can regular armed confrontations between police or armed forces and gangs be considered noninternational armed conflict and should international humanitarian law be applied? The general consensus is, in principle, “no” — IHL falls short and might even be detrimental. It would legitimize the killing of rivals as ‘combatants’, for example, and would also allow for a certain amount of collateral damage close to the fighting — a dangerous prospect in the confines of an urban environment.

But it’s not always clear where to draw the line. Some situations are so acute they require the involvement of army units or police forces to combat organized, armed groups — all sides with highly sophisticated weapons. Mexico’s 'war on cartels' in towns along the US border is a case in point. What is the best legal framework for protecting the affected population in this case? Human rights law? International humanitarian law?

For people affected by this kind of armed urban violence, such legal distinctions make little difference. The effects are usually the same. Friends and family are killed, injured or go missing. People are displaced and basic services are interrupted.

hese basic and immediate humanitarian needs are what compel response.

Water for blood

Rio de Janeiro is not the only place where the ICRC has reacted to urban violence short of war. Between 2004 and 2007, after the ouster of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the ICRC and the Haitian National Red Cross Society came to the aid of victims of violence in Port-au-Prince.

Gangs had taken control of shanty towns such as Cite Soleil and Martissant, terrorizing the populace through kidnapping, rape and torture. The situation was so dire that the ICRC responded with a plan to improve the availability of clean water in the slums and to collaborate with the National Society on first aid and evacuation of casualties.

Olivier Bangerter, an ICRC adviser specializing in armed groups, calls the operation a textbook example of how to deal with gangs. He says that entering into discussions with gang leaders is not difficult, but the conversations will not be the same as with opposition groups fighting armed conflicts.

“You don’t speak about IHL,” he says. “You can discuss a number of things that are non-threatening but make a difference, like respect of the Red Cross and the medical mission. You can discuss projects on the group’s turf and how they should treat the workers.”

The ICRC and Haitian gang leaders managed to agree on a number of rules: don’t harm or threaten Red Cross personnel, give safe passage to Red Cross cars and people, and don’t touch the wounded, even if they come from a rival gang. As Bangerter explains, gangs had something to gain from the relationship, too. Their families lived in the same neighbourhoods. They benefited from access to clean water and medical evacuation systems.

“By and large, there were no serious incidents,” he says. “There were glitches, but over three years, with people who were considered absolutely lawless, it was quite a good result.”

Infrastructure was central to the Haitian operation. Owing to the insecurity in Cite Soleil, the national water utility, CAMEP, could not operate or maintain the system, and safe water was practically non-existent. Over a period of nearly three years, the ICRC installed a new pumping network and, as confidence grew, CAMEP was able to progressively take back ownership of the system. Robert Mardini, head of water and sanitation in the ICRC operations department, says turning the water back on was an important first step. “It helped us to be accepted in Cite Soleil and it was conducive to more ICRC action like protecting civilians.”

Still, it’s tricky work. For example, first-aid workers sometimes face pressure from gangs to take their members to the hospital first. But Jude Celoge, coordinator of a Haitian Red Cross first-aid post that serves Cite Soleil, says most people he meets now accept that the Red Cross is neutral and will help people on all sides.

“This morning we took five people to the hospital, four of them with gunshot wounds,” he told an ICRC video crew in August 2009. “People are really supportive because when there was no Red Cross, many people who could have been saved, died.”

Amy Serafin
Freelance writer based in Paris

Rio de Janeiro, Pavão favela. Special military forces police officers walk in the streets of the favela during a security operation.
©Nadia ©Shira Cohen










Urban violence takes a heavy toll on families and communities. Flowers in memory of a man killed by gang members are seen tied to a railing in Glasgow, Scotland.
©REUTERS/David Moir, courtesy











“We built up acceptance little by little, so that
now we can... be
respected, rather
than being a target
for the gangs, police
or army.”

Michel Minnig, former ICRC regional delegate for Latin America











Family members mourn a military police officer executed while doing surveillance on a local bar. On average, three police officers in Rio are killed every week.
©Nadia Shira Cohen/ICRC











ICRC and Brazilian Red Cross programmes in the favelas connect vulnerable populations to community services that volunteers hope will steer children from a path towards violence.
©Patricia Santos/ICRC











“This morning we
took five people
to the hospital, four
of them with
gunshot wounds.
People are really
supportive because
when there was
no Red Cross, many
people who could have been saved, died.”

Jude Celoge, First-aid coordinator, Haitian National Red Cross Society











A man smokes in his dormitory at a compulsory drug rehabilitation clinic in Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui province. Armed gangs are bringing drugs into China in growing numbers, with farmers moving to cities for work becoming a new target.
©REUTERS/Jianan Yu, courtesy


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