Red Cross president: Our connections in Iraq allow us to send aid even to ISIS territories

They bring relief even to the most hellish places on Earth. The Red Cross and Red Crescent are present in conflicts worldwide, acting when governments are helpless, or too involved in the violence. But how do you make a choice between safety and delivering aid? How to bring help to the lands under terrorist rule, with which governments refuse to talk? How do you make sure politics doesn’t stand in the way of international aid? We ask the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, on Sophie&Co

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, it’s great to have you on our program today.

Peter Maurer: Thanks for your interest and thanks for having me.

SS: So the ICRC is working in Donetsk and Lugansk, you are getting updates all the time - how severe is the humanitarian catastrophe on the ground?

PM: This is definitely one of those conflicts, which preoccupy us the most worldwide. Ukraine has become the 10th largest operation of ICRC, which is an indicator that this is a serious situation. We are confronted with the fighting, the violence going on, and an enormous impact on civilian population, in particular the population most vulnerable: these are the elderly, the disabled, family with one parent, many children, it’s those who are in hospitals, in other facilities, and could not flee the fighting, which are trapped sometimes in this very difficult situation and this is a population in dire need, that needs a lot of assistance.

SS: But can the Red Cross handle the situation on its own at this point? I mean, what does it need to effectively help people on the ground?

PM: We never have the ambition in any of the conflicts of the world, to handle the situation on our own. We need to operate in assistance with other partners able and willing to do so, provide humanitarian assistance as well, and we welcome that others engage and scale up their humanitarian assistance and whoever has an ability to do so and should do so.

SS: I know that ICRC refused to supervise the Russian humanitarian aid convoy in Ukraine, citing, actually, lack of safety on the ground. But, surely, your organization goes to places that are much more dangerous than Donetsk?

PM: It’s an issue of safety, but first and foremost, it’s also an issue of agreement between the government in Kiev and the Russian government, with regard to those convoys. It’s not ICRC’s task to be a border control agency, deciding on what is a humanitarian delivery which is entitled to go into Ukraine. It’s a political issue which has to find political solution between the two governments. Once a space is created for neutral and impartial organizations to operate, we can help, facilitate, we can do our own operations, but it’s definitely not our task to negotiate the framework for cross-border humanitarian assistance, which other institutions have to deal with. With regard to security, we have our standard operation procedures which are important to respect worldwide; as I mentioned beforehand, we want to know the actors in the field and we want to have security guarantees, that when we engage in humanitarian operation we are not shot at. We respect those procedures and we don’t go in if we don’t have the assurances.

SS: But you have said that the public opinion is extremely polarized when it comes to Ukraine. Does it get in the way of the aid work, does it hamper the organization of your work in Ukraine?

PM: Definitely. I mean the politicization of humanitarian work and assistance, not only in the context of Ukraine but worldwide, is a big worry today. Obviously, conflicts are always emotional, and in conflicts you have always the opinions that are clashing and it’s difficult to find a space for neutral and impartial assistance. We have seen this space being contested by parties to the conflict and assistance being considered as an indirect military help or strengthening of the adversary. This is a logic which hampers the whole idea of humanitarian assistance, which has to be delivered in a space where both sides agree that civilians must be protected and assisted.

SS: That just brings me to my couple of next questions. Russia Red Cross spokesperson actually said that it offered assistance to the Ukrainian branch of the Red Cross and to the ICRC, but it was refused. Why was the Russian Red Cross refused to help at that point?

PM: There are two elements: the way humanitarian assistance is delivered and where it comes from, obviously, in this conflict, again, has been an issue of political controversy. We deplore that this is the case, but this is a matter of fact. The perception that the humanitarian assistance from Russia was not welcomed by Ukrainian state and the Red Cross is also a matter of fact, that’s the reason why, as ICRC, we tried to beef up and scale up our operations - because we have procedures, and hopefully a credibility from other conflicts, which makes our assistance being perceived as neutral and impartial, independent and more acceptable. As ICRC, we have engaged in conversations with the Russian Red Cross and the Ukrainian Red Cross to find more fluid cooperation within the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. Indeed it’s always deplorable when this is not happening at the scale and pace which is commensurate to the needs of the people.

SS: Then there was a famous incident when Russian philanthropist Elizaveta Glinka, she’s been in the war-torn Ukraine since the start, helping injured children - I know her personally, I know how she’s worked against all odds all her life. Very critical of the government, quite often, of the Russian government. Now, she came to the ICRC, asking for help in providing assistance to deliver medicine to the injured children - your representative actually said he doesn’t want to help her because he doesn’t like the Russian President’s politics - which is fine, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but isn’t the ICRC, like you’ve said, supposed to be impartial and also help other players willing to help?

PM: I am not aware of this statement of the representative of ICRC, but I am aware of our policy in the organization, and our policy is to do the best we can to deliver according to neutrality and impartiality and independence of our organization. It means that in certain circumstances we would not necessarily support or cooperate with others. We do not, though, contest what others are doing good work - but we do not want to be necessarily part of work which in the perception of one party or the other is not considered neutral or impartial.

SS: But did you the instance with this lady, have your heard of this?

PM: I have heard about the lady, but I haven’t heard about what you allegedly say that representative of ICRC has said...

SS: Right. It made the news here.

PM:...It’s certainly not the policy of institution to qualify whether we like or not the policy of any country involved in any of those activities, it’s not our policy. We are neutral and impartial organization, but therefore we have limits and we impose limits to ourselves with whom we cooperate, or whom we support in the field, because cooperation with other partners and other actors can easily bring us into the difficulty and being perceived ourselves of being not neutral and impartial.

SS: But how do you choose, how do you realize who you can help in providing aid or who you can’t?

PM: It’s a contextual assessment that the delegation in the field and at HQ have to do, and who is an acceptable partner in a certain circumstances, and who is a partner, who does, again, maybe a very good work, but not necessarily work with which we would like to be associated because we have larger concerns of being neutral, not only as self-definitional neutrality, but also as a neutrality which is perceived by all parties to the conflict as neutral. So if we come to the conclusion that partnering with somebody else can bring us into difficulties, we would choose not to partner.

SS: Even though your help could be crucial at that point?

PM: Yes, because we can’t take responsibility for what others are doing. Again, we do not say that others should not try to act according to their beliefs and principles, to do work. We have our operations and we partner with those we think can contribute to what, again, I would call a neutral and impartial humanitarian assistance; but we have to be considerate on what it looks in the eyes of the others, because we are always working on both sides of the frontline, we are never working just on one side.

SS: You have said that you would actually like to see Yugoslavian model of aid delivery in Ukraine. What does that mean and what would that entail actually?

PM: I said, when we discuss international mechanism on the basis of the Minsk agreement, let’s look at practices in the past and whether this international mechanism can be inspired by past experiences. We know that combination of countries and agencies in the case of Yugoslavia has been able to mount humanitarian mechanism and that it has been accepted by both sides of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. We can offer our experiences on what makes humanitarian assistance more fluid, more easygoing, more rapid in delivery, but it’s basically the countries who negotiated the Minsk agreement and who have to come to grips on how such a mechanism should be designed. We are ready to contribute with our experience and to say what could work in practice, but we are not ready to take responsibility for such mechanism, which is a political issue which has to be discussed by political actors.

SS: Now, you’ve said that the Ukrainian mission is your 10th most important mission at this point, for you, and I know that it costs $50 million for the ICRC. Is that enough money to actually take care of things and help people in Donbass?

PM: It’s certainly not, and by definition it is never enough for the humanitarian operation. On two levels - it’s never enough because needs are always bigger than our capacity to raise funds and to deliver, and it’s certainly not enough by what we see emerging and in that sense we are not in a logic of either delivering alone, again, other actors should also deliver, so we have to look at the whole picture, and we’re certainly in the logic of trying to do more as we move forward and as we have an ability to access and deliver humanitarian services. So this is not the last word, it’s where we stand at the present moment and we are certainly working at a budget increase in the next couple of weeks if the conditions allow us to do more.

SS: Just to get an idea, is your mission to Syria more expensive than mission to Ukraine?

PM: The mission to Syria, at the present moment in terms of budget is the largest mission of ICRC worldwide, it has 175 million Swiss Franc budget. Afghanistan is the largest in terms of personnel, it’s in the 82 million. Just to give you an idea, only in 12th month, we have increased from zero Swiss Franc to 49 million Swiss Franc, which is in Ukraine, and this is the largest growth at any mission ICRC had last year. So, it’s an important new conflict which has come to our agenda, and again we do not have an ambition in a conflict to cover all needs. We have the ambition to be close to victims, close to battlefields to be where other actors are not, and to cover those needs which are not covered by other actors. That’s the reason why you will find ICRC worldwide in some of the most difficult situations.

SS:)Also in the areas controlled by the ISIS?

PM: Actually, also in the areas controlled by ISIS, even if we don’t have a stable permanent presence at the moment in ISIS controlled territories at the moment, but we do humanitarian assistance in two… recently, we have done into Mosul hospital, into Fallujah hospital, we have done water and sanitation work in Raqqa.

SS: So does that mean you find certain connections within terrorists?

PM: We find possibilities to access, when we have networks of contacts; we are active in rural Afghanistan, in southern Yemen, in southern Somalia, in northern Mali - in all those places where very often ICRC is rather lonely actors, because there are not so many international actors present.

SS: State policies that state does not negotiate with terrorists - does the same apply to your organisation or you can actually talk to extremists if you can save somebody’s life by talking to that person?

PM: It’s a question of realism. At the present moment, modern than 10 million people live in territories controlled by Islamic State group. Millions of people live in territories controlled by Al-Shabab, by Boko Haram, by the Taliban - and in those territories sometimes you have the starkest starkest and the most poignant humanitarian needs. We are committed to help those people, and in order to help it is important to securitize our operations, to have a license to access, to humanitarian work, and that entails that either directly or indirectly we look for contacts and the agreement that we can do such work. You cannot just walk into any village or city in rural Afghanistan or southern Somalia or Iraq or Syria, and say: “Here I am, I am delivering humanitarian assistance” - it needs license to operate.

SS: Sure, but I just want to ask you about the details of what you’re saying. For instance, we were touching upon the ISIS, when you mentioned Mosul and Fallujah - who delivers aid to those places? Are those the Red Cross workers at this point, the hospitals that you’ve mentioned?

PM: It’s very different from one place to another. We have contacts, for instance, in Iraq, because we have been in Iraq for decades, since all the conflict, the Gulf Wars - so, we have relations with people, with local authorities, with hospitals, and we can channel assistance to those hospitals because we know the people and we know how they deliver. In other cases we need to send, for instance, technicians, in order to repair water supply and water facilities, and we try to have the assurance that these technicians can move from A to B and we play this in complete transparency with the respective governments and in notifying everybody who has to be notified and to give us security guaranties.

SS: But I feel like ICRC is recognized by everybody, by rebels, by terrorists, by armed groups. Is it fair to say that members of your organization are safer in areas like that, in war-torn areas, than any other organizations?

PM: We are not necessarily safer, this is a dangerous environment in which we are operating, but over the last 120 years the organization has accumulated a body of experience on how to operate in those difficult circumstances. We are victims of security attacks, we have been victims last year, three times - three of our delegates lost their lives in operation in Central African Republic, in Libya and in Ukraine. We have security incidents all the time…

SS: Did you have workers kidnapped?

PM:...We have people abducted for more than a year, in Syria. So this is serious situation in which we do not just have a license for safety, we do not. It’s very protracted, complicated, it’s a constant balance between the assurances you need to operate and the fact that there are people who badly need assistance and protection - and every day you have to balance, whether you can risk a certain operation, whether it is correspondent to the immensity of needs that you are confronted with, and the relief that you are able to bring.

SS: While we’re talking about security, does it usually the country of the conflict that provides the security to your workers, or you yourself provide security for your workers?

PM: No, we provide security for our workers in a sense that we operate transparently and engaging with all parties to the conflict. We don’t have any armed escort, there’s no armed security at ICRC’s operation. Our only security methodology is basically negotiating a license to operate in those territories which are controlled by different armies and armed forces. So, it’s engaging with everybody who is in charge of place or the way to a place in which we would like to operate. That’s the basic security philosophy of ICRC and we take charge, in that sense, of our own security and do not rely on any military means or protection of either government, multinational troops or whatever.

SS: You’ve just mentioned that you had your worker abducted for one year. Let me ask you something - do you pay ransoms? I am asking this because this is a huge debatable issue all over the world right now.

PM: ICRC doesn’t pay ransoms.

SS: Now, you’ve worked on the ground, you’ve been in some of the worst places. What’s the most dire thing you have seen yourself?

PM: I don’t want to make a list of what is the most dire to the less dire. In many of those situations, we are confronted with an enormous negative impact of fighting and violence on civilian populations, and this is the biggest concern we have: how can we mitigate this impact, how can we contribute to ease the situation. For the individual, each situation is always the worst, and we try to do our best to go to those very bad places, where nobody else is going, and to bring some hope and some relief to those who are suffering.

SS: Have you ever been afraid for your life?

PM: I feel pretty comfortable with ICRC’s security philosophy and security protocols, but of course, when one travels as a President, sometimes there’s shootings and grenades and explosives around you - it’s not something that you just easily put away with a twink of an eye, it’s a difficult situation, it’s much more difficult for all my colleagues working in the field, and I have an enormous admiration for all the staff, more than 12-13 thousand now worldwide, who deliver important services day in and day out, in sometimes very dire situations.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview, we wish you all the best.

PM: Thank you very much.