Photographs showing the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, shaking hands and smiling caused an uproar online late last week. Many commentators and journalists from Ukraine and beyond began questioning the role of an organization like the ICRC and whether its president was bonding with a Russian official in the middle of a war.
At the same time, false information about the international organization spread on social media, probably in an attempt to discredit it.
These criticisms and attacks against the ICRC were puzzling. After all, ICRC’s president was doing nothing out of the ordinary; instead, he was fulfilling his role as the head of an independent and neutral organization whose mandate is to deal with all parties to a conflict to ensure humanitarian protection and assistance for all victims of war and armed violence. The organization has been doing this since its creation in 1863.
As the custodian of international humanitarian law (IHL), the ICRC can only promote and ensure its respect and implementation by creating a trustful dialogue and talking to all sides of a conflict – state and non-state armed actors alike.
So why this sudden anger at 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.
Underlining all humanitarian action are the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. These principles are derived from IHL and enjoy global recognition. The principles provide the foundations for humanitarian action.
Let’s focus on the two principles that explain why humanitarian organizations engage with all sides of a conflict: neutrality and independence.
In order to earn the trust of all sides and obtain access to all areas where there are populations in need, humanitarian organizations must abide by the principle of neutrality. This means that humanitarian actors may not take sides in hostilities or engage in political or other controversies that will affect their impartiality.
Additionally, humanitarian organizations are required to maintain their autonomy from political, economic, military, and other objectives so they can 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 deliver on the two other principles of humanitarian action: humanity and impartiality. These aim respectively to alleviate human suffering wherever it is found, and to provide assistance on the basis of needs alone regardless of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class, or political opinions.
During hostilities, humanitarian organizations often resort to humanitarian diplomacy to influence parties to a conflict to act in the interest of all civilians, respect their obligations to avoid and reduce civilian suffering, and obtain guarantees to enable safe access to populations in need.
In a nutshell, that’s what the president of ICRC was doing in Moscow when he met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Meeting with all sides of a conflict, including at the leadership level, is a common practice among humanitarian organizations that operate in hostile environments and need to negotiate access to areas controlled by either side of a conflict.
As a former staff member of a humanitarian organization (the Norwegian Refugee Council) which made access to hard-to-reach areas a top priority, I can attest to the importance of speaking to all sides. This is the way to access safely all populations in need without any distinction when there is an active conflict. If they were to neglect one side of the conflict, humanitarian organizations would take the risk of jeopardizing the possibility of earning the trust of warring parties as well as the populations in need. Another consideration, less often spoken about, is the safety and security of aid workers. When humanitarian organizations are perceived as biased or to have taken side, their employees are more likely to become a target of state and non-state armed actors, to the detriment of all.
While this might sound shocking to those unfamiliar with these humanitarian principles, ICRC and many other humanitarian organizations have regularly spoken with the ‘enemies,’ the ‘terrorists,’ and ‘the bad guys’ all around the world. That comes with their job as neutral, impartial, and independent aid actors.
What many considered to be unacceptable when ICRC’s leader met with Russian officials last week was simply usual for many others.
Similarly, opening an office in Russian territory – if this were to become the case – should not be perceived as siding with one side of the conflict. Humanitarian operations are conducted based on the existence of needs alone and an organization like ICRC will decide whether or not to undertake such an operation after assessing whether its presence can be of benefit to the protection of civilians who fall under its protection mandate, including those deported from Ukrainian territory and prisoners of war. There is nothing political in such a decision, if it were to be made. Such engagement is emphatically not about “legitimizing” one side of the conflict, because the ICRC and many humanitarian organizations consider all parties to a conflict to be legitimate interlocutors.
Those who chose to unleash their anger at ICRC are barking up at the wrong tree. While one can understand the fury at Russian officials for waging a war against Ukraine, turning cities into battle fields and streets into cemeteries, humanitarian organizations are not tasked to hold accountable warring parties for their crimes. Their primary role is to alleviate the suffering of civilians, deliver aid, and remind all parties to respect IHL.
As a former journalist and communications professional serving in the aid sector, this makes me realize that humanitarian organizations should do a better job at communicating with audiences about the basics of humanitarian action and IHL during and outside times of conflict.
However, as long as the sound of guns and bombs resonate louder than the sound of a gavel strike, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of wars and humanitarian actors shall keep engaging with all sides to reduce suffering and deliver life-saving assistance.