Burma Times: 17 June 2015
In the second and final part of his interview with The Nation’s |Suthichai Yoon, International Committee of the Red Cross president Peter Maurer discusses his agency’s approaches to regional crises
We have been reluctant to engage in discussion on the [Rohingyas’ ethnic] status. Our mandate is humanitarian, therefore we try to assist and protect people who suffer from the impact of violence, irrespective of their race and background.
In Rakhine state, we have seen inter-communal violence, which has led to displacement. Our first priority as the ICRC is to assist and protect people where they are first. So, we have an assistance programme in Rakhine state. We have a big delegation in [the state capital] Sittwe, and we try to assist and protect people locally displaced by the violence. Our objective is to support livelihoods before people start to migrate.
DO YOU ENCOURAGE THEM TO MIGRATE?
We are neutral about people’s decision on whether they would stay or migrate. We try to assist and protect them where they are. Our first effort is to support them where they are. … We have the same operation in Syria. We have a big programme to assist displaced persons.
We provide water, sanitation, shelter, medical facilities, food and a family re-unification service – for those looking for the missing. We ensure humanitarian services, so that they can survive where they are.
Once they migrate, we try to protect and assist them along the migration route. We look at their vulnerabilities. We see whether we can engage either with society, state or as the ICRC, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent to assist and protect those who have started to migrate.
We often find those people being exploited by traffickers and suffering violence along trafficking routes.
In such cases, we normally set up migration and protection centres where migrants can spend the night, receive medical care and be protected from exploitation by traffickers. This is the case for our operation to assist migrants from Mexico to the US.
We look for reception structures for those who are considered illegal in one place. We support their return. Once back home, we ensure that they will not exploited by drug traffickers or other criminals. We build a humanitarian assistance structure.
HAVE YOU ENGAGED WITH GOVERNMENTS ON HOW TO TREAT THIS GROUP OF PEOPLE?
We engage governments on respect for international humanitarian law. If humanitarian law is respected, there is no reason for people to migrate.
Migration is a very political issue. As a humanitarian actor, we are very cautious about intruding on discussions about status and entitlement, which would require us to take sides.
The origin of the problems is always political. Therefore, it requires political actors to address this issue. If the ICRC starts to become involved, we would lose our neutrality, impartiality and our independence.
In the end, we have to be confident that political actors take their responsibility seriously and that the issue is addressed at the political level.
DO YOU MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN |ECONOMIC MIGRANTS AND POLITICAL REFUGEES?
We do not make a distinction. We look at the humanitarian angle – meaning the seriousness of humanitarian needs once a person starts to migrate. When we define an assistance programme, we look at who are the most vulnerable and endangered persons – which are normally women, children, elderly people, detained people.
WHAT ARE THE BIG CHALLENGES AHEAD OF YOUR MISSION?
There is a growing need for humanitarian assistance. I fear that there will be more work to do. We have to be realistic. The ICRC operates today with a budget of 1.5 billion Swiss francs [Bt54 billion per year]. We have around 14,000 staff worldwide in around 80 countries.
Given the status of international affairs, I don’t see much hope at this very moment. Looking at the conflict in the European continent between superpowers over Ukraine, the competition in the Middle East between regional powers – be they Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, and so on – and the South China Sea where many powers are engaged in the conflict, we see that societies are in turmoil. There is an increase of injustice, exclusion and discrimination, leading to more violence in many parts of the world.
In many parts of the world, the ICRC is one of the only responders at the international level delivering humanitarian services – be it in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Myanmar. I fear that this situation will not disappear and we will be challenged by all these issues, leading us to increase the numbers of our operation.
GIVEN THE RISE OF THE ISLAMIC STATE, CAN THE ICRC ENGAGE THE JIHADIST FIGHTERS ON HUMANITARIAN PRINCIPLES?
We are confronted in many battlefields with non-state actors who do not embrace humanitarian values. Our approach is to seek a dialogue with those actors in order to convince them that humanitarian values and laws are not Western values. We try to emphasise that these principles are deeply implanted in each society worldwide and that they should be respected even if the group politically disagrees with the future orientation of the country.
We try to establish dialogue in order to explain and to convince this group of the importance of international humanitarian law [IHL] and principles. We engage with religious leaders who have an influence on those actors. We talk to major opinion leaders. We try to build networks. Some of the actors, such as ISIS fighters, are people who the ICRC knows since we have visited them in prison. We know some of the personalities and we try to build the relationship and to explain to them why certain behaviours are incompatible with humanitarian standards.
WHAT IF THEY DON’T LISTEN? CAN YOU DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT?
As a humanitarian organisation, the ICRC does not have law-enforcement capability. Therefore, we rely on consensus. This is the limit of the humanitarian space. It is the responsibility of political actors to come up with alternatives to the problem. We are civilian humanitarian actors working without weapons. Words and convictions are the only means we have. We try to convince them that it is in their own interest to respect and enlarge this area of activity. However, we cannot enforce it.
HAS THERE BEEN ANY SUCCESS IN ENGAGING WITH THESE ARMED GROUPS?
I would say that we have a humanising effect on many of these groups. At the moment, we do engage in IHL training in the Middle East for these non-state actors.
We tell them what the applicable law is, and we see that most of the things we do have some positive effect. They do recognise some of these responsibilities by treating detainees better, allowing the ICRC to engage in supplying medical instruments, and to access civilian populations. So, there is a certain success. But because of the nature of today’s conflicts, the impact is still insufficient. Yet it is enough to encourage us to enhance our efforts.
HAS THE NUMBER OF ICRC OFFICIALS HARMED, INJURED OR KILLED IN OPERATIONS INCREASED IN RECENT YEARS?
Overall, the figures are stable. Sometimes we suffer more attacks, sometimes fewer.
Where the ICRC is known, this is our best insurance policy. When we are new in the conflict zone, this is considered to be the most dangerous. We have lost three staff [recently], in Libya, in the Central African Republic and in Ukraine. These are all examples of places where we have just started our operations, as compared to other places where we have been operating for decades. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen we have been engaged for a long time. This gives us more comfort in our operations.
WHAT IS YOUR REACTION TO WATCHING THE NEWS?
My first concern is, what does this piece of news mean to our staff and our operation? Do we need to react? As a humanitarian body, it is difficult to foresee what is waiting in the future. However, it is critical for an organisation like the ICRC to be fast. We have considerably increased our efforts in the last couple of years to respond rapidly to crises. Now, the ICRC is able to deploy a team within 24 hours, mobilising people to cope with any kind of outbreak of violence and conflict. This is the strength of this organisation.
EVERY TIME I WATCH THE NEWS AND SEE A CONFLICT BREAKING OUT, THE FLAG OF THE ICRC AND ITS OPERATIONS ON THE GROUND MAKE ME FEEL THERE IS HOPE. THANK YOU FOR THIS SIGNIFICANT MISSION, AND FOR |TAKING TIME OUT FOR THIS INTERVIEW.
Thank you. You just said something very important to us as well. We are always happy to assist and protect people in need in conflict. However, the most important |element is that we spare some space for hope.