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«We don’t have any way of forcing states to do anything, that is the reality of it» — spokesperson for the ICRC

This is Ukraine Calling and our guest today is Achille Després. We talked with him about the ICRC’s work in Ukraine.

«We don’t have any way of forcing states to do anything, that is the reality of it» — spokesperson for the ICRC

Andriy Kulykov: You’re listening to Ukraine Calling, the English-language podcast by Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Today’s guest is Achille Després; he’s the spokesperson for the ICRC. And since there’s a lot of confusion about what ICRC stands for, I ask him to explain.

Achille Després: International Committee of the Red Cross.

AK: And the reason I ask is that there’s a lot of confusion about the ICRC and the other ICRC, which is the International Movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent. Could you please explain the difference, affiliation, and how everything fits in?

AD: Thank you very much for having me, Andriy. It’s only one ICRC — International Committee of the Red Cross is only one organization. This organization deals with countries that are suffering from armed conflict or other situations of violence. Now, this is part, as you say, of a broader movement — the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. So we have 192 national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies in the world, in each country of the world. We have here of course, Ukrainian Red Cross, we have in my country, Swiss Red Cross, etc., etc., etc. And all of these national Red Cross Red Crescent Societies are independent from each other and from the international committee that deals specifically with armed conflict. Now, there is also a third organization, which is the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent, which essentially acts as an umbrella of all the national societies and coordinates a little bit their efforts. What unites us are our principles, among these, neutrality, impartiality, and other principles. And we work, all of us, towards one goal: to alleviate the suffering of people who are suffering. Now, this may translate into different things in different countries. But what we do, at the International Committee of the Red Cross, is to assist people who are suffering as the result of armed conflict. And the national Red Cross do other things in their respective countries.

Emergency Response Team of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society took part in the evacuation of 11 patients from Donetsk region/Photo by Ukrainian Red Cross

AK: How right am I in suggesting that the International Red Cross works mostly in the countries which are traditionally considered Christian, and International Red Crescent in those that are traditionally considered Muslim or Islamic?

AD: So there is no International Red Crescent; there is International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, which is composed of these three components: International Committee of Red Cross, International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent, and the 192 national societies. Based on historical reasons, countries may have Red Cross Society or Red Crescent. As an example, you can think of in Turkey there is Turkish Red Crescent, of course; in Switzerland, Swiss Red Cross. It’s based on historical factors that used to be religiously based, but it’s not religiously-affiliated, if you want.

AK: Where does this leave the countries which are not historically Muslim or Christian?

AD: For example, in Japan, we have a very important national society, the Japanese Red Cross. So, Japan is not a country that is historically Christian or Muslim, but they chose the Red Cross. In countries that have different denominations, for example Lebanon, we have a very important partner, Lebanon Red Cross, even though of course, a large part of the population is Muslim and other religions. So it’s not religiously-based; it’s based on historical elements related to the development of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement in a specific country.

AK: You mentioned Lebanon, and of course Lebanon is one of the countries that suffered from civil war and invasions for decades. Now in Ukraine, the situation has aggravated eight years ago, many people here considered the war of Russian against Ukraine started eight years ago. Some people consider otherwise, but for quite some time, we’ve been experiencing some of the suffering that other countries have experienced for many, many years. How different is the work of the Red Cross in Ukraine as compared to countries where this has been going on for decades?

AD: So, for the International Committee of the Red Cross, we work wherever there is armed conflict. So, we’ve been present in Ukraine, in the east of the country since 2014, and of course, since February 2022 we are more present all across the country. Essentially, in our objectives and in the nature of our work, it doesn’t differ from what we do in other countries that are experiencing armed conflict. This means that we are here to assist civilians, we are here to talk to the parties to the conflict to tell them about the rules that govern hostilities: international humanitarian law, Geneva Conventions. We are here also to remind the belligerents that even though there is armed conflict, it has rules; that civilians, civilian infrastructure, should not be the target of military hostility. So we are doing all of this. We are also working very close to communities, and of course this can materialize in many different ways based on the countries. In Ukraine, for example, we are working very closely with local authorities, local municipalities. If you think about some areas that have suffered intense fighting, we are working with them to give them construction materials directly to the municipalities, so that they can work as closely to the communities as possible to rebuild houses. We’re working also with local water companies, with Voda Kanal, in the sense that there have been some water structures that have been severely damaged or even destroyed, so we’re working with them. So in a way, we do the same work everywhere we work, but we adapt it, naturally, to the needs of the country and also to what’s existing in the country and what the communities are experiencing and what they’re needing.

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AK: In popular perception, the Red Cross is mostly connected with medical aid, but I hear from you about construction, about water, and all this kind of stuff. Still, how important is the medical part, medical aid, in your work?

AD: It’s of course very important. We have medical professionals working with us, but we also support medical institutions. Like I said, there is no one-size-fits all. In some countries, we send medical delegates because that’s what’s needed. In other counties, we support medical institutions because they are already working quite well. As an example, in Ukraine, we have supported over 120 health institutions. This means that we may have given them medical materials that they were struggling to find. We may have given them things that they need to get rolling, but it’s not, in Ukraine, necessarily the case that we need to bring in additional medical professionals because it’s a country that’s fairly developed in this manner. So of course, health humanitarian activities are very important, but we work, especially here in Ukraine, very closely with local institutions, with institutions that already exist and are functional, and with our partners of the Ukrainian Red Cross, which I mentioned just a moment ago.

AK: Achille Després, the spokesman of the International Red Cross Committee in Ukraine, in the podcast Ukraine Calling here, I’m Andriy Kulykov. I’m talking to Achille Després, and the next question is about talking to belligerents. How eager are they to listen to you, even if you are eager to talk to them?

AD: So in all armed conflict in the world, it’s our role to talk to the belligerent, whoever they are. It can be states in this case, it can be armed groups, and it’s never an easy dialogue to have, because we remind them that when they are waging hostilities, there are rules. Now, in this particular armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, both belligerents have accepted that the Geneva Conventions, which are the rules of warfare, apply. So that’s already something that is working in that regard. Some other belligerents in other conflicts may not recognize that. You can think of armed groups, for instance. So the fact that they’re engaging with us is already a good sign. Now of course, what we’re doing is to try to work with them in dialogue, influence them as much as we can be so that what is said, for example, by political authorities is reflected at all the levels, including at the ground level where these decisions have an impact. And like I’ve said, it’s not an easy dialogue, but it’s a dialogue that we have constantly, that we speak to the parties to the conflict, and whenever we see something that is not compliant with the framework that governs conduct of hostilities, we of course take it to the party in question, and we list it, and we explain why, and we remind the obligations under international humanitarian law.

In Transcarpathia, the Ukrainian Red Cross provided a medical center where vulnerable groups of the population with IDPs undergo rehabilitation and treatment, as well as necessities/Photo by Ukrainian Red Cross

AK: But I would say that you have only moral means of influence or means of moral influence to remind and explain and all this kind of stuff. What do you do if you are absolutely sure that the rules of war, the rules of warfare, are brutally broken? Do you have any opportunity to bring pressure to bear on those who break those rules?

AD: You’re touching on a very important point, that we don’t have any way of forcing states to do anything. That is the reality of it. States, all states, are party to the Geneva Conventions, so it’s their duty, their legal obligation to respect it, and the duty of other states that are not party to the conflict to pressure them, and the international community to pressure them to respect these obligations. What we can do, is only talk to the parties of the conflict. We talk to them in a bilateral manner, in a confidential manner because we think, and we know from our history in working in other conflicts, that this is our best tool at our disposal to try to influence in the favor of the victim, and in the favor of the most vulnerable.

AK: You still use the term victim, whereas in many other cases, especially lawyers, recommend using the word survivors. What’s your attitude to this?

AD: Of course, it’s a better way of saying it, survivors. But when we see civilians should not be targets of military hostilities, when we see that they are, of course we consider them victims or survivors. The point that’s important for us is that we need to be very clear these people, civilians in this conflict, this international armed conflict, has had dramatic effects, as you know, on civilians, on civilian infrastructure, and within civilians, on some of the most vulnerable people, including the elderly or people who may not have the opportunity to flee. So this is what we’re trying to remind, that these people are suffering in a way that is not justifiable.

AK: Another word that I was going to ask about is war. You haven’t used it in our conversation, you said armed conflict or international conflict. Why do you avoid the word war?

AD: This is a very important question that you’re asking. And as you know, and as I’ve said, we are working, the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the basis of the Geneva Conventions. This is our framework, this is what our work derives from. In the Geneva Conventions, there are some definitions of legal nature that triggers our work. The definition of international armed conflict is something that is agreed upon by all states and this is what makes our work possible, because we work in situations of armed conflict, international armed conflict. War doesn’t have a legal definition in the Geneva Conventions. This is why we prefer to use this. Of course, we talk in general language about rules of war, warfare, conduct of hostilities, essentially, it means the same thing. The point for us is that when states or armed groups are waging military hostilities against each other, they have to respect the legal framework. And they have to respect the fact that some peoples and categories of people that are clearly defined by law are protected categories of people, such as civilians, such as soldiers that are wounded, or that have fallen into the hands of the enemy party. And so all these rules that are based in law, that are legal in nature, they have concrete outcomes for people. This is what we stand for.

AK: Mr. Després, we talked about local communities and the help that they receive from the International Re Cross Committee, we talked about medical institutions, now you mentioned prisoners of war, although in different terms. How important is this part of your work to the ICRC?

AD: This is a fundamental part of our work. In this conflict and in all the other conflicts. Because we are the only international organization mandated by the international community, through the Geneva Conventions, to deal with these issues. So, for us, it’s very clear, and we’ve said it many, many times to the parties to the conflict and publicly, that prisoners of war are protected by the third Geneva Convention and that means very concretely that they have some rights that have to be respected and some protections that have to be awarded to them. That’s the basis of our work. Now, as you know, we should be allowed full unimpeded and regular access to all prisoners of war held as a result of this international armed conflict. We’ve said it many times that so far this is not the case, and for us it’s simply unacceptable. It’s a legal obligation from the parties to the conflict. It’s not something to be bargained for or negotiated. And it’s also just a purely humanitarian and human imperative. It’s crucial that we are allowed access so that we can check on the detention conditions of these people so that we can also, and that’s a very, very important point, keep them connected with their loved ones back home. As I’m sure you know, there are several thousands of families here in Ukraine, wives, sisters and daughters that are without news of their loved ones for several months and that’s immense suffering that is not acceptable and that we will never accept. This is why we keep asking parties to the conflict to allow us this access that they have to allow us.

AK: I presume that you are equally interested in having access to prisoners of war on both sides, and everything that you said applies both to Ukrainian prisoners of war and the Russian prisoners of war, yes?

AD: I’ve said at the beginning of our conversation that we are guided by principles including neutrality, impartiality. So, for us, when we see a mother without news of her son that has gone on to the front line, whether this son is Ukrainian or Russian, the suffering of a mother is something universal. And also, so that’s from a human point of view, but also from a legal point of view, all parties to a conflict have to give us access to prisoners of war. So, we are asking simply that the parties to the conflict respect their legally obligation and give us access to all the prisoners of war. And so far, we have been able to visit several hundreds of them on both sides, but we know that there are thousands of families that still haven’t had the news that they so rightly deserve, and we know that they’re very desperate, that they’re angry, and we feel their frustration, and we share this frustration because we want to give them the information that they so rightly deserve.

AK: Still, some or other influential people in Ukraine say that the International Red Cross does not display an adequate attitude towards Ukrainian prisoners of war held by the Russians. Why do you think they claim that you do not play enough efforts?

ICRC: I’ve said earlier in our conversation that we usually work in a rather confidential manner, and I understand, we understand that this can be very frustrating for people because what we- the dialogue that we have to influence in favor of the prisoners of war, to try to have concrete outcomes for them and for their families is something that is best done in confidential and bilateral dialogue. And we’ve learned that from several other conflicts throughout our history. So, of course we know that this issue is very, very close to many people, of course here in Ukraine but also internationally, and in a way, that is a good thing because these people and their families should not be forgotten, and we clearly will never forget them. We are here to help them and when we are not able to give them the help that they rightly deserve of course it frustrates us, and we share the frustration that people feel towards our work, and we would like to do more, and this gives us an extra impetus in our dialogue with the parties to the conflict to tell them that they have to give us full access.

AK: If this can be calculated in percentage terms, how many of your staff here in Ukraine have the experience of previous work in the countries with armed conflict?

AD: That’s a difficult question to be evaluated, but I can give you just some figures for you to understand. We have around 600 staff here in Ukraine and very importantly, the vast majority are Ukrainians that we hire here locally, so probably something like 70 percent. Now, the rest of them are staff that are from various countries around the world, and that have, most of them, worked in other countries in situations of armed conflict. We have colleagues that have worked, of course, in Israel where we have important operations. We have colleagues that have worked all across Africa, some countries that have gone through very difficult armed conflict, so, some of our colleagues have worked in Afghanistan in recent years, so a lot of them have a lot of experience dealing with situations of armed conflicts and all armed conflicts are different, of course, they have their own dynamics but the nature of what we’re trying to do, the humanitarian work that we’re trying to carry out, remains the same.

AK: How have you personally become involved in this work?

AD: Personally, I started working with Red Cross organization back home in my own country, in Switzerland, which as you know is not a country that has suffered armed conflict in a lot of time. But I was working in my community with people who were fleeing from these situations of these terrible situations of countries with refugees and this is when I started to- I decided to join the international movement of the Red Cross Red Crescent and then joined the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC works across Ukraine to mark contaminated areas and raise awareness, so people can stay safe/Photo by ICRC Ukraine

AK: And why did you come to Ukraine? Do you have a special preparation background for Ukraine, are you maybe a Slavic expert, or…?

AD: I don’t call myself an expert, but I certainly have an interest in the country, in the situation that it finds itself in and also based on my experience working at the International Committee of the Red Cross and the fact that we are scaling up our presence here in Ukraine, this is- all of these factors made it possible for me to come and join our teams in Ukraine.

AK: And this person who has joined the Red Cross-party in Ukraine is Achille Després and the next question, and we’re nearing the end of the conversation, is, can you remember a story which justifies your personal and the Red Cross’s presence in Ukraine, what springs up to your mind firstly, or maybe two stories or something like this.

AD: I have a story that, actually, that I was involved in two weeks ago? Maybe a bit more now? Two, three weeks ago. I was with some of our teams around the Kharkiv area in the village of Shevchenkove. And we drove for six hours from Poltava with six semi trucks of construction materials, stuff very essential but somehow basic stuff like tiles and bricks, and we drove to this community of Shevchenkove, an area, that had just been retaken by Ukrainian armed forces, and we delivered this material to the head of this community. I personally spoke to the head of the community, and he was of course very thankful, he thanked me several times for having a partner, an international partner able to do that, and I spoke more importantly to people who have, from this community, and who stayed all along since February, and they told me that the fact that we are bringing such essential things as tiles mean that they will be able to maybe have their houses rebuilt before it gets too cold. So, it’s really sort of a race against the clock before it gets to sub-zero temperature and just the fact that we brought this to the community, and we didn’t go to people’s houses to say “this is what you will do” or something, the community local administration took it, and then they will see with their residents how to do it. And it was just very powerful to speak to the head of this community but also to speak to some of the people that had remained then, as you can imagine, there were people, mostly elderly because they couldn’t leave, so they were just very happy to see new people coming in and to just speak to us.

AK: Are you going to stay in Ukraine for the winter?

AD: I am going to stay, yes.

AK: How do you prepare yourself for this winter, which we hear by all predictions will be very hard to us, for us?

AD: Look, I mean, as you know, and everyone knows, I think that this will be a very challenging, and difficult winter for civilians here in Ukraine. Myself personally, I’m like every other civilian in this situation and this is similar to the help that the International Committee of the Red Cross provides to civilians. So, we give assistance, cash assistance to people so that they can buy electric heaters. We, in some communities where houses have been damaged, we can help remake basic things like windows, insulation. Some places we give woods for the fire, this sorts of thing. So, I think everyone in Ukraine is preparing the best they can, and we are doing our best to help them in doing so.

AK: Yeah, and I was interested in what they personally, Achille, would prioritize. Does he buy an electric heater or an electric blanket or whatever?

AD: I have bought an electric heater which will not be of a lot of use if we don’t have electricity, which is the case for several hours a day, as you know, including where I live. But what I do is not different from what everyone else is doing.

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AK: Now in this respect, I find very indicative, another word that you use is «we». Have you gone native?

AD: In what sense?

AK: In what sense. You know there is such a notion that people who spend much time and apply a lot of effort and begin to feel the problems of the community where they live as their own become “native,” and somehow lose the ability to notice some things and accept them as something given, you know?

AD: In the sense that I’m integrating into…?

AK: Okay, that’s another way of putting it.

AD: Into the society that I find myself in? Of course. Because I think wherever you are, for how long you are there, it changes you, and then you become, you call it “you become native,” you become different, and you adapt and certainly the fact that I am in Ukraine now means that I interact mostly with people from the Ukrainian community, here in Kyiv but also in all the other places that I have to travel to see our teams carrying out various operations. So, in that sense, yeah, and I have not been back to my own country for several months now, so I think I will come back changed, for the best, I hope.

AK: But I presume you talk to your compatriots?

AD: Yes.

AK: On the phone or to your family. What do they ask you, firstly, apart from your current state?

AD: What I find that is for me difficult to explain to my family to my friends back home is that there is somehow a difficulty to understand, on the one hand, all the immense suffering that is coming from this situation, from this country so severely affected by armed conflict, and at the same time, the fact that I see and I talk about all the good things that I see, all the nice people that I meet, all the places that I go to that are inspiring. So, there is somehow this kind of mismatch. And that’s something that I think is really telling about this situation, that it’s, as you know, the country has been going through some incredibly challenging times and there’s some other challenging times ahead, but also it’s impossible not to be humbled and inspired by just the simple resilience of people that you see and the fact that life is still going on.

AK: Achille Després, the spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine, in Ukraine Calling on Hromadske Radio.

Ukraine Calling — November 30, 2022
Transcribed by Caitilín O’Hare

This podcast is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Hromadske radio and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.


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