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Ukraine and ICRC Gazette

“This will be our reply to violence; to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before”.

John Doyle was quoting Leonard Bernstein before he conducted the Dun Laoghaire Choral Society in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem last Sunday. The Church in Monkstown was packed to the rafters for a very special once-off performance in aid of those impacted by Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The Chair of the Red Cross in Ireland, Pat Carey, a former TD colleague of mine, also spoke beforehand thanking Irish people for their generous donations, now totalling an astonishing €21m.

The following morning, a Ukrainian MP, Maria Mezentseva, was interviewed on RTE’s Morning Ireland about the humanitarian crisis. She was not very complementary about the Red Cross saying she was “absolutely shocked” about the decision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to open an office in Rostov-on-don in Russia, near the Ukraine border.

Her concern was that this in some way legitimised the war and in particular legitimised the treatment of Ukrainian prisoners originating in Mariupol who had reportedly been sent to Russia.

On the previous Thursday, I attended an online meeting with two Ukrainian MPs and both were also heavily critical of ICRC.

I asked Inna Sovsun MP, the deputy leader of the Voice political party, whether it was possible for humanitarian organisations to maintain impartiality at this point in the war in Ukraine. She was scathing about the ICRC for not taking sides.

Earlier that same day, the head of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, was in Moscow meeting the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. The reaction online was extremely hostile and underlines a deficit in public discussion about how humanitarian organisations are supposed to conduct themselves in wars.

This issue requires some explanation.

I have had a lot of discussions with aid agencies working in Ukraine and particularly about the difficult issues that arise in trying to maintain impartiality.

There are rules of war which are contained in the Geneva Conventions (there are four of them). A Protocol was added some years later which states that the ICRC should act in a completely impartial, independent and neutral way in any conflict.

If the ICRC were to take sides, this would endanger humanitarian aid workers and prevent the ICRC from being able to negotiate humanitarian corridors and prisoner exchanges. One such prisoner exchange took place last Friday. All other humanitarian agencies are supposed to follow these principles.

Many people have donated to humanitarian agencies on the understanding that they are supporting the Ukrainian side of the war. International NGOs (INGOs) have to be careful to be straight with people that they will provide support to anyone who is in need wherever they are and regardless of their political views.

This is obviously a difficult position to defend. Russia has systematically breached International Humanitarian Law by bombing hospitals and schools, blocking aid corridors and besieging civilian populations.

Another critical issue is one for the EU itself. The lead EU agency is called ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations).

ECHO will also struggle to adhere to humanitarian principles when other parts of the EU response (sanctions and military assistance) are so completely partisan in favour of the Ukrainian side and separate from the impartiality that is supposed to guide humanitarian action.

The EU should be more careful to ‘vacuum-seal’ the humanitarian response from the military and political if humanitarian workers are to enjoy protection.

So much of what is happening reminds me of Syria. Just like in Syria, frustrated Ukrainians’ number one demand is for military assistance and a no-fly zone. As one Syrian once told me, the humanitarian aid is appreciated but without military support we end up with well-fed corpses.

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