Photographs showing International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shaking hands and smiling sparked an online outcry last week. Many commentators and journalists in Ukraine and elsewhere began to question the role of an organization like the ICRC and whether its president was tying himself to a Russian official in the midst of a war.
At the same time, false information on the international organization broadcast on social networks, probably in an attempt to discredit it.
These criticisms and attacks against the ICRC are puzzling. After all, the president of the ICRC was not doing anything extraordinary; instead, he was fulfilling his role as head of an independent and neutral organization whose mandate is to deal with all parties to a conflict to provide humanitarian protection and assistance to all victims of war and armed violence. The organization has done so since its inception in 1863.
As the guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL), the ICRC can only promote and ensure its respect and implementation by establishing a dialogue of trust and by addressing all parties to a conflict – armed state actors and not state.
So why this sudden anger against the ICRC?
One can only assume that the recent uproar stems from a lack of understanding by many of what humanitarian action is and how it is guided.
All humanitarian action is based on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. These principles are derived from IHL and enjoy worldwide recognition. The principles form the foundations of humanitarian action.
Let’s focus on the two principles that explain why humanitarian organizations engage with all parties to a conflict: neutrality and independence.
In order to gain the confidence of all parties and to have access to all areas where there are populations in need, humanitarian organizations must respect the principle of neutrality. This means that humanitarian actors cannot take sides in hostilities or engage in political or other controversies that would affect their impartiality.
In addition, humanitarian organizations are required to maintain their autonomy from political, economic, military and other objectives in order to be able to carry out their operations in accordance with the principle of independence.
When acting according to the principles of neutrality and independence, humanitarian organizations can then respect the other two principles of humanitarian action: humanity and impartiality. These aim respectively to relieve human suffering wherever it is found and to provide assistance on the basis of need alone, without regard to nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions. .
During hostilities, humanitarian organizations often use humanitarian diplomacy to encourage parties to a conflict to act in the interests of all civilians, to uphold their obligations to avoid and reduce civilian suffering, and to obtain guarantees to allow safe access to populations in need.
In a nutshell, that’s what the president of the ICRC was doing in Moscow when he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Meeting with all parties to a conflict, including at leadership level, is common practice among humanitarian organizations operating in hostile environments and needing to negotiate access to areas controlled by either party to a conflict. conflict.
As a former staff member of a humanitarian organization (the Norwegian Refugee Council) which has made access to hard-to-reach areas a top priority, I can attest to the importance of talking to all parts. It is the way to safely access all populations in need without any distinction when there is an active conflict. If they were to neglect part of the conflict, humanitarian organizations would take the risk of compromising the possibility of gaining the confidence of the belligerents as well as of populations in need. Another consideration, less often mentioned, is the safety and security of aid workers. When humanitarian organizations are perceived as biased or as having taken sides, their employees are more likely to become targets of armed state and non-state actors, to the detriment of all.
Although it may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with these humanitarian principles, the ICRC and many other humanitarian organizations have regularly spoken with ‘enemies’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘bad guys’ all over the world. This comes with their work as neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian actors.
What many saw as unacceptable when the ICRC leader met with Russian officials last week was just normal for many others.
Likewise, the opening of an office on Russian territory – if that were to become the case – should not be seen as siding with a party to the conflict. Humanitarian operations are carried out on the sole basis of the existence of needs and an organization such as the ICRC will decide whether or not to undertake such an operation after having assessed whether its presence can be beneficial for the protection of civilians who fall within its mandate. protection, including deportees from Ukrainian territory and prisoners of war. There is nothing political in such a decision, if it were to be made. Such engagement is in no way intended to “legitimize” a party to the conflict, as the ICRC and many humanitarian organizations consider all parties to a conflict to be legitimate interlocutors.
Those who chose to unleash their anger against the ICRC were on the wrong track. While one can understand the fury of Russian officials for waging a war against Ukraine, turning cities into battlefields and streets into graveyards, aid organizations are not tasked with holding belligerents accountable for their crimes. . Their main role is to alleviate the suffering of civilians, to provide aid and to remind all parties to respect IHL.
As a former journalist and communications professional working in the aid sector, it makes me realize that humanitarian organizations should do a better job of communicating with the public on the basics of humanitarian action and IHL during and outside of times of conflict.
However, as long as the sound of guns and bombs resounds louder than the sound of hammer blows, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of wars and humanitarian actors will continue to engage with all parties to reduce suffering and provide life-saving assistance.