17 Nov 2020

ICRC President Peter Maurer: Nagorno-Karabakh crisis has lasted for 28 years

Peter Maurer

Peter Maurer
Photo: ICRC press-office

President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer, who is visiting Russia on November 16-17, has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about topics he is going to discuss in Moscow, the first-priority steps towards Nagorno-Karabakh restoration and the influence of the Covid-19 pandemic on the most vulnerable regions.

Question: You are expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as other high-ranking Russian officials, during your visit to Russia. What are the main issues that you are going to discuss? What are the main points that the ICRC is interested in?

Answer: Well, several lines. First, there are, of course, our activities in conflict zones around the world. Every conflict is also a conflict of interests to a member of the P5 of the UN Security Council, but some of the conflicts today are much higher on the agenda, in particular, the developments in Syria, in Ukraine, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Caucasus, but then also in Libya, and in other parts of the world, from Venezuela to Myanmar. One of the most important things of the visit is that we identify how the ICRC and Russia can cooperate in order to get greater Russian support for the humanitarian work and some understanding. This, of course, is particularly important today in an operational theater like Nagorno-Karabakh, where the ICRC and Russian peacekeepers are at the same time on the ground.

We have a similar situation in Syria, as you know, we have long-term experience in cooperating with the Russian militaries, and we hope, of course, to continue that positive cooperation. Then, of course, you know, the ICRC has a legal mandate to look after the international humanitarian law, and therefore the exchanges with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others on the new developments with regard to international humanitarian law are important. These are the issues of applicability and application of the international humanitarian law in cyberspace, how we think about those issues, what we foresee as political processes, weapon-related issues, how we think about international humanitarian law and autonomous weapons systems, how we see trends in conflicts and the way the law has to be applied. Russia's voice, of course, since the 19th century on humanitarian law is an important voice. So, I used this visit also to take stock of discussions and see also how we can structure our conversations.

I certainly want to highlight also our increased interest in cooperation with the ombudsman for children's rights, Mrs. [Anna] Kuznetsova, who has worked on an issue of critical importance to the ICRC: what is happening to the children of foreign fighters, of mothers, coming out of families of foreign fighters, which have been stranded in Iraq and Syria. I certainly appreciate what she has done in terms of advocacy for the return of children. We are looking at how we can also exchange on some of these challenges. So, a lot of issues related to conflicts, a lot of issues related to the international humanitarian law, this is a broad conversation.

Q.: You have mentioned Nagorno-Karabakh, which is expected to be one of the main topics. What do you see the primary goals of the ICRC in the region? Obviously, the fighting has stopped, but there are a lot of other issues that need resolution. What will the first steps in the region be? The exchange of prisoners, dead bodies, or some kind of mediation in the region?

A.: Well, look, all the issues that you mentioned are relevant, but I would say at the very beginning, that over the last couple of weeks, we have intensified our efforts to protect and assist the population which has been affected by the war, which has been displaced, which cannot or could not return to their homes easily. The assistance to those populations remains at the center of the ICRC work. Then secondly, we started our efforts supported also by the Russian peacekeeping military to recover dead bodies. I think I can report that promising steps have been taken, quite a number of dead bodies have been identified, recovered and exchanged, or brought to the respective sides of the parties, so that seems a process which is underway and positively underway. And then the notification to the ICRC for the prisoners of war, detainees and the visits by the ICRC in order to ensure their humane treatment and humane conditions of detention. I think this is the essence of what we are going to do.

Afterwards, certainly our first impression is that after six weeks of war the level of destruction is high. So, there will be reconstruction efforts to support, and given the delicate security situation and delicate situation of population movements and returns, we expect that the ICRC will continue to be engaged in this issue and see how we can support the return of people to the places where they had been living before. That is what we traditionally do. Hopefully, other actors will then also come aboard which more are attuned to medium and long-term structures, but it's obvious that a lot of weight is at the present moment on the ICRC, because we are almost the only organization there. We certainly hope that once the situation is calmer, other UN agencies would come in - the [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] UNHCR is already present in both Yerevan and Baku. We hope that there is an amount of support that would help stabilize the siltation.

My objective is of course to discuss with the Russian authorities tomorrow [November 17] the peacekeeping center which has been announced, the Turkish-Russian peacekeeping center, and also to know more about President Putin's humanitarian center, which has been announced for Nagorno-Karabakh. So, we will certainly try to have a clear understanding of what the Russian activities will be and also how the ICRC can support and complement Russia in these issues.

Q.: Does the ICRC have figures regarding the number of displaced persons in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the number of possible refugees, as well as casualties and prisoners of war?

A.: It's very difficult to have accurate numbers at the present moment, therefore I prefer not to offer any numbers. What I can say that the pre-war population of Nagorno-Karabakh was around 140,000 – 150,000. At the present moment Nagorno-Karabakh doesn't look as if a lot of people are still there. A lot of people are away, and we don't know where they are, necessarily. Some of them may have returned to Yerevan, Armenia, some of them may be somewhere, we don't know yet. We have seen quite a lot of people on the Azeri side starting to return to cities which they had left because of the bombardment and artillery, but it's really premature to have an accurate vision.

With regard to the detainees, it's a little bit the same. According to the Geneva Conventions, the parties are obliged to notify the ICRC of prisoners of war. This is a process which has still to be speeded up and scaled. So, we hopefully know more in a certain period, but I also wanted to caution because these are most of the time figures which parties don't want us to share with the broader public. So, I don't want you to have an impression that in a month’s time you can get figures from me. I simply don't know. The parties may agree to share the numbers, and then we will share them. But most of the time it's an issue which becomes only clear at the moment of exchange, and at least for the public this is how things may unfold.

Q.: Am I right in understanding that the exchanges are already taking place or going to take pace in the near future?

A.: There have been some exchanges ongoing on a low scale. We consider the exchange of prisoners basically a political issue to be negotiated by the parties themselves. The ICRC is ready to facilitate such exchanges but we don't want to be mediators in the exchange of prisoners. We are at maximum a facilitator and technical implementer of agreements. Our main objective is to visit prisoners, as long as they are prisoners, to ensure that there is no ill treatment and to ensure that conditions of detention reflect international standards, what is the core ICRC work. You may have seen from other places in the world that we certainly are ready to facilitate talks, so that negotiations can go on regarding the exchange of prisoners, and we will continue to work on these issues as we have for the past 28 years in the context of the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh where we have always visited detainees who found themselves on the wrong side of the contact line, and we will continue to do that work.

Q.: Speaking on a broader scale, do you think there is a risk of humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh right now?

A.: Yes, there is always... I mean the question is how you define crisis. I think there has been a humanitarian crisis for a long time in Nagorno-Karabakh. The question is how big it is. It's probably a crisis that has lasted for 28 years, because [there are] many humanitarian issues, I mean issues that concern families, we have people still missing from the origin of war 28 years ago. That is the humanitarian crisis for the families of missing people. We have the unresolved detainee issue, even if the numbers are not huge. We have negative impacts of the contact line between Nagorno-Karabakh armed groups and the Azeri Armed Forces, which have had an economic impact on the populations living on both sides, their communities have been disrupted.

We have had a humanitarian crisis for 28 years, now we have a bigger crisis, because more destruction has happened, more displacement, more prisoners, more missing people, it's more of everything, so it's a bigger crisis. But of course, for us I know it is a question which always comes from journalists. Journalists want to know what the biggest crisis is. We have always been cautious to respond, because at the end of the day the biggest crisis is always the crisis that affects you. For people in Nagorno-Karabakh, Nagorno-Karabakh is a humanitarian crisis but Syria is not. For Syrians, Syria is a humanitarian crisis, and that's the biggest crisis. And numbers are not so important, and I say that because, you see, sometimes there is a tendency to say 'well, we have maximum 150,000, or 200,000 people displaced compared to 11 million Syrians displaced, that is not a big crisis.' That, in our view, is a wrong way of looking at these problems. I think there is a serious crisis, it has disrupted too many lives of people, and we, the ICRC, are certainly committed to do our best to give a sense of normalcy back in a foreseeable future.

Q.: Have you registered any events during the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh that could be called war crimes or crimes against humanity?

A.: I mean our mandate is indeed to engage with parties to a conflict when you observe violations of the Geneva Convention in terms of the conduct of hostilities, the principle of distinction, proportionality, precaution, or when we see violations of the principle of protection of civilians or ill treatment of detainees, or when we see misuse of weapons, or when we see illegal weapons used in certain context. These are all issues which are considered serious violations of the international humanitarian law, according to the Geneva Conventions. You know the ICRC in its methodology is always privileging the confidential dialogue with the respectful parties when we make these observations. We will continue to do so, to make these observations with the respective parties. You may know that we deliberately have the policy of not feeding our observations into a judicial accountability process. While we do believe that judicial accountability is important, we as a frontline humanitarian organization want to be able to operate and to engage in trustful relations with the belligerents even if those belligerents are responsible for violations of the international humanitarian law.

So, that's the reason, that's a long way of explaining to you that I will not in public adjudicate or make any judgements on violations. What I can say is that I have not seen in eight years of my being the president of the ICRC, and the organization has not seen in 157 years of existence a war which has not been accompanied by violations of the Geneva Conventions and the international humanitarian law. But on the other side, I also want to recognize that the Armenian and Azeri armed forces which are structured, which have chains of command, which have responsibilities - they are ordinary forces of the countries which have signed the Geneva Conventions.

When I look at the situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan and around Nagorno-Karabakh today, I also see possibilities to engage in a dialogue are probably bigger than in other places in the world where unstructured conflict of state and non-state arms groups offers us much more difficulty to engage with the parties than in this conflict.

Q.: You have mentioned that in the view of the ICRC the level of destruction is quite high in Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you have estimates regarding the amount of assistance needed for the region? Perhaps a humanitarian call for action is needed?

A.: On the overall needs one will have to do solid needs assessment when we talk about infrastructure destruction, other organizations will be better equipped to have a professional judgement on the percentage of fully-destroyed, half-destroyed and repairable [infrastructure], and I know that organizations do these things, so we'll come to that point, but at the present moment we cannot yet put a figure to the infrastructure discussion.

I think our humanitarian call for action is really to support the population affected, to ensure the respect for international humanitarian law, in particular with regard to missing, displaced people, protection of civilians and detainees, but also for the generous support of the weapons decontamination efforts.

Nagorno-Karabakh and the operational area of warfare that we have seen over the last six weeks is a relatively small area which is most likely quite weapons-contaminated, unexploded ordnances, mines, and I think in order to rehabilitate and to even to make assessments people will have to be able to go to the villages that are destroyed. And you cannot just walk as on a Sunday stroll into Stepanakert, Shusha and other villages and cities - you'll have to do mine risk assessment, decontamination in order to have a solid assessment. Unfortunately, we have seen it in many cases that you can destroy much faster that you can rebuild. That's unfortunately the truth, that is also the truth for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Q.: Let me ask you about the Covid-19 pandemic. It has obviously affected all countries, but since you work in crisis regions, could you please tell us what regions are the most affected, what regions need assistance as regards the pandemic?

A.: Well, you have to distinguish between the health impact of the pandemic. We have seen that many countries that have been heavily affected are at the same time countries which have functioning health systems and which are able to cope by and large with the situation. I mean China was able to cope with Covid, Europe is able to cope with Covid, and the U.S. is able to cope with Covid, and a lot of other countries are.

I think that our concern is first and foremost with regard to the indirect impact of Covid on the one side on the health systems and on the other side on the overall economic systems of vulnerable populations. My biggest concern as a humanitarian organization is really for the millions of people who have been affected by restrictive measures in order to combat Covid-19, where you look at Africa, India, Latin America, a lot people are today in humanitarian need, because the economy has been hit by Covid-19 measures and the informal economic sectors have basically imploded, when you restrictions and lockdowns and you have ripple effects on the poorest.

Unfortunately, I think my biggest worry is that Covid has affected the poorest the most, not directly in terms of mortality but indirectly in terms of economic consequences. I think the big issue is whether we, by combining the efforts of the international community and humanitarian, development, health-directed organizations, can bring health systems to stabilization in some of those places, and to allow them then to find a path to normal growth rates. I think that at the end of the day health systems in vulnerable context have been the most difficult ones. We are starting to see now rising mortalities in terms of polio, tuberculosis, malaria, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which are rising and which are the direct effect of focusing too much on Covid and not enough on the broader health of populations. I think everybody responsible today in the world gives you the same response, everybody who responsibility is afraid of the social gap which has increasingly opened between those getting richer through the pandemic and those getting poorer. This gap has been accelerating, and that is a big issue.