2 Nov 2015

Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross Dominik Stillhart: Operation in Syria is ICRC‘s largest one

Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross Dominik Stillhart has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about the committee‘s work in Syria and situation in Donbas after the establishment of ceasefire there and growing humanitarian needs as winter season approaches.

Question:Does the ICRC work on the territories controlled by the ISIS in Syria?

Anwser: It is the largest humanitarian operation in Syria, already last year, this year again and next year it will still be our largest operation. We have offices in Damascus, we have an office in Aleppo, we have an office in Homs, and we have an office in Tartous. We are working actually not only n areas that are under control of the government but also areas that are under control of different opposition groups. As far as the areas controlled by the Islamic State are concerned, we have managed to provide some assistance, especially in the field of water. We are working through the water boards, we work with water authorities in Syria. We are delivering spare parts and chemicals for the water boards to operate and they are also operating in areas that under control of the Islamic State group. It is fair to say that we are facing difficulties to develop our operations in the areas that are under control of the Islamic State group because we have very sporadic contacts with some of the people who are affiliated to the Islamic State group. So for security reason it is therefore difficult for us to deploy our operation, full-scale as much as we would like to and as much as it would be needed given the humanitarian needs.

Q.: How much funds will you need for the Syrian operation next year?

A.: We are having a budget next year of 150 million Swiss francs, which is more or less like 150 million U.S. dollars or euros. So it is not that big. This year and the next year is pretty much the same.

Q.: Does the beginning of Russian antiterrorist military operation in Syria make it harder for the IСRC to work in the country?

A.: One thing that is true for sure and clear is that Syria is becoming increasingly crowded battlefield with not only local actors, there are also regional actors and now international actors, including Russia. Airstrikes, or any sort of combat operation, of course are a challenge to first and foremost the civilian population living in the country but also of course humanitarian organizations. That is why we are seeking to coordinate our operations with all parties that have operations on the ground.

Q.: Does the ICRC coordinate its activities in Syria with Russia in order to avoid various incidents with may occur with ICRC workers?

A.: We are having standard operating procedures with all parties that have military operations on the ground, including now of course Russia. We have a very fluent and dynamic dialog with the Russian representation in Syria. We also talk to the Russian permanent mission to Geneva, where we are based.

Q.: Does ICRS cooperate with Moscow in area of providing humanitarian aid in Syria?

A.: We have, as I said, a very dynamic relationship with Russia, also with regards to Syria, Russia for instance also funded some of the ICRC operation in Syria. In 2013 and 2014, Russia provided about $3 million for our humanitarian operation in Syria.

Q.: What is the current situation on the southeastern Ukraine? Has it got any better after the ceasefire was established there?

A.: What we see the first and foremost is the ceasefire has been holding since September 30, which is really good news first and foremost for all the people who have been suffering fr om the conflict in southeastern Ukraine. We are definitely very pleased with the progress that has been achieved under the Minsk Agreement. Now it is also important to understand that humanitarian needs will remain massive, because there are more than 2 million people who have been uprooted in Donbas. Many of them are internally displaced. Many of them have become refugees including in the south of Russia and in Belarus. People, especially the people who have been living along the frontlines where most of the fighting has been taking place, they are in a dire situation. We have been able now to substantially increase our humanitarian operations both outside of Donetsk and Luhansk. Just to explore, we had a team going the village on the frontline that has been cut in halves by the fighting. What we saw there us really a dire situation: children were malnourished, women could not lactate anymore because of the stress, health facilities were completely down. Our team met with a man whose name, I think, is Valentine, who said that it was the first time that any humanitarian aid had reached his village. I am just trying to illustrate that despite the fact that there is a ceasefire, that there is progress on the political level, which is excellent news, the humanitarian needs on the ground are extremely poor, also moving towards winter and the cold season, so definitely the humanitarian situation remains a matter of concern.
Ukraine is one of our largest operations. I think it is the sixth largest operation that we are running for the time being with around 60 to 70 million of Swiss francs, or U.S. dollars if you want. We are definitely planning for at least 2016 to maintain that level of operation, because of what I have explained before, because the humanitarian needs, especially for communities along these frontlines who have seen massive destruction of their villages, all the systems are down - these people will need a lot of assistance in the coming months.

Q.: What are the most pressing problems in Donbas now? What ways to solve them you can see?

A.: I think priority needs now are related to the cold winter season. So there is absolutely a need for sufficient food, for sufficient essential household items, and blankets and [], as well as building materials for people to rebuild their houses. These are the immediate needs that we are attending to. But what will then emerge as we move into the winter is a lot of mines and unexploded ordnances that make it difficult for the people to return. One of the problems that we will be facing, that people will be facing, is the problem of people who have gone missing. Nobody knows how many people have gone missing. There are definitely hundreds if not thousands of people who have gone missing, we do not know. And this is what we call one of the lasting consequences of the conflict and it will take our experience, if we look for example at Bosnia, almost 25 years after the conflict we are still working on several thousand people who are missing and whose fate has not been elucidated. That is extremely difficult for the families of those who are missing, because you can simply not go on with your life as long as you do not know what happened to you father, to your husband, to your son who have gone missing in a conflict. This is one of the lasting consequences that we will need deal with.

Q.: Is there any difficulty or obstacle for the ICRC work in Donbas? Can the IСRC inspectors get free access to the necessary territories? Does the ceasefire make the work of IСRC officers easier?

A.: We, the International Committee of the Red Cross, are the organization that is working in times of conflicts. In principle, with or without a ceasefire we are trying to operate and assist and protect all people who are affected by a conflict. It is true that since there is a ceasefire it has become easier for us to move, because there are fewer immediate risks related to the fighting. That has allowed us now to significantly scale up our operations in Donbas.

Q.: Does the ICRC have enough funds to carry out its activities in Ukraine taking into account the fact that the Minsk Agreement extended to 2016?

A.: Since 2012 we, the ICRC, have very significantly scaled up our operational response to ever growing humanitarian needs. If you look at the world today I think it is fair to say that we have been probably noting in the recent or less recent past so many simultaneous and protracted conflicts generating humanitarian needs. We have grown our operational budget by 50% between 2012 and 2015. In 2012, if we talk worldwide we had a budget of about 1 billion Swiss francs, and now we are at 1.5 billion Swiss francs. That puts tremendous strains to the organization itself, but also of course in terms of generating the necessary funds it has become increasingly difficult. The main donors are following, but we are looking at a very large operational deficit in 2015, which we will need to carry forward into 2016, and definitely we are appealing to all our donors to step up their support to humanitarian operations that we are running worldwide, including also in eastern Ukraine.

Q.: Does the ICRC help Ukrainian refugees in Russia? Does the ICRC coordinate its activities with Russian authorities responsible for it?

A.:We are not only operating in eastern Ukraine, we are indeed supporting some of the most vulnerable refugees in southern Russia. This activity is fully coordinated with authorities, as well as with the Russian Red Cross. Since 2013 we have been assisting about 65,000 beneficiaries, refugees.

Q.: What is the current situation in such countries as Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan? Does the ICRC provide help to their citizens? Does the ICRC cooperate with Russia in those countries?

A.: We are operating in all countries that you have mentioned. The Middle East is definitely is our Number 1. If I take different regions, the Middle East is the center of regional and global instability. We are running large-scale operations not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, wh ere the situation has been deteriorating since the beginning of 2014. Also in Yemen, the ICRC is one and the only organization that has remained present throughout the country since the beginning of coalition airstrikes at the end of March. Afghanistan, there is also unfortunately again an operation in the context of growing humanitarian needs, because the conflict is intensifying and expanding into regions in the north of Afghanistan that have been spared from a conflict for a very long time. We are therefore stepping up our operations in Afghanistan. Then we have a number of large-scale operations in African countries that are affected by conflicts. In terms of dialog with Russia we have sustained dialog with Russia be it in these different countries through the diplomatic communications, be it in Geneva or here in Moscow now in our CSTO staff talks but also in our discussions with authorities, we of course discuss these various situations and humanitarian consequences of these situations.