ICRC President Peter Maurer explains the tasks of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Excerpts from “Tagesgespräch” on Radio DRS on 23 October, interview by Ivana Pribakovic

mw. In an interview with Ivana Pribakovic, Peter Maurer reports on the demanding task of the ICRC to be accomplished in Syria and many other war zones, and he speaks of the difficulties that the helpers face.
The current reason for the discussion is the agreement between Turkey and Russia on military control in Northern Syria and the decision on a ceasefire. This had become possible after the United States withdrew its troops and, thanks to the cooperation of the remaining Heads of State, seems to have stopped for the time being. The first question to Peter Maurer is: can the local population breathe a sigh of relief now?

Finding safe ways for humanitarian aid

Peter Maurer confirms that a ceasefire is a relief for the civilian population and one of several factors necessary for successful humanitarian action: “In recent years, and especially in recent weeks, the northeast has been a battle zone with many uncertainties, many movements of armed units. It was difficult to work there at all, to set up logistics in a space that was difficult in terms of security, and it was also difficult to have the right people in the right place and to reach those in need. Many factors have to be right in order to be with the right people with the right goods and services at the right time”.
According to Peter Maurer, the ICRC has provided for the supply of people fleeing from the conflict zones: “For the first days and weeks we have already had relatively generous reserves in the region. Now the main task of our delegation in Syria is to see which are the safest ways to provide humanitarian services in north eastern Syria. Of course, we work very closely with the Syrian Red Crescent and other national societies that are capable, that have knowledge and above all people who can be deployed relatively quickly.”

“Half of the problems would not exist, despite the war, if international humanitarian law were respected.”

According to Peter Maurer, the main task of the ICRC, apart from providing aid to those in need, is to demand respect for international humanitarian law. For “despite the war, half of the problems would not exist if international humanitarian law were observed”. That is why it is always necessary to talk to the warring parties in order to persuade them “to observe minimum rules of international humanitarian law with regard to the protection of the civilian population, the treatment of prisoners of war, the detention of civilians in camps”.
On the great problem of the destruction of hospitals and other health facilities, the ICRC President declared: “If we start from the Geneva Conventions, hospitals are installations that are notified [communicated, identified, mw] as hospitals. Because so much was destroyed in the war, clinics are spontaneously opened, which are then no longer notified due to a lack of trust in the warring parties. […] In Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in many conflicts, we have a breakdown of trust between the population and the armies. Then people no longer go to hospitals, because the whole system of health protection provided for in the Geneva Conventions no longer works.”

“Maintaining the basic principles is a daily challenge.”

In response to Ivana Pribakovic’s question whether it is still possible “to work in Syria according to the proven principles of the ICRC, i.e. to be impartial and offer help to all”, Peter Maurer replies: “I would say cautiously: it is still possible to work in Syria, but maintaining the basic principles is a daily challenge because all warring parties have a tendency to want to pull us in one direction or the other. There is no such thing as respect. It must be assured, negotiated, discussed again and again. What concerns us in Syria, but also in many other areas, is the enormous effort that we have to make in order to achieve minimal protection at all and to be able to provide minimal services. The law is not simply applied out of the awareness that it is right to apply the law, but we must constantly fight for it to be applied.”

More effort and energy called for at political level

The ICRC can at most have a stabilising effect, Peter Maurer continues, by helping the affected populations to survive. “But the solutions must be political solutions, and that requires much more effort and energy at the political level. Without credible political efforts to silence the weapons and create stability from there for the humanitarian actors to find space, without these minimal efforts we will continue to be in a negative spiral in many places around the world, which is of course worrying.

“Less media presence translates into less resources for the ICRC.”

According to Peter Maurer, Syria is currently the ICRC’s largest operation worldwide, with a budget of CHF 180-190 million per year. But whether enough donations are made for the suffering population in the various war countries depends heavily on the media: “We have a constant discrepancy between the objective problems we encounter and their visibility in the media, and the money available. Syria has been back in the headlines in the last few weeks, has been little in the media for a year, but the problems were not gone, they are still exactly the same as at the end of last year. Less media presence translates into less resources for the ICRC, but also for many other organisations of the UN system, the NGO. Resources are only spoken again and again when a conflict is brought into consciousness for a few days on the first page of the news.”
At the end of the interview, the ICRC President asks for support not only for short-term missions, but also for the urgently needed help in the conflict areas of many years’ standing.    •
(Translation Current Concerns)

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