22 Nov 2016

President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer: Needs will remain enormous in Syria tomorrow and for the years to come

President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer has given an interview to Interfax correspondent Alexander Korzun ahead of his visit to Russia on November 23-25, in which he speaks about topics he would discuss with Russian officials, his assessment of ICRC interaction with Russia, and problems that the organization faces in Syria and Ukraine.

Question: Mr. Maurer, what is the goal of your visit and what issues are you going to discuss with the Russian leadership?

Answer: Through this visit, I hope to have the opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the Russian authorities and the organization that I lead and deepen the dialogue and cooperation between us on some of the most pressing humanitarian issues our world is facing: conflicts that cause immense suffering; millions on the move; cities besieged; brutal urban warfare; vital public services destroyed, most devastatingly in the middle east. These are matters of deep concern and to which the ICRC and Russia have to respond.
Russia has always had a key role on international arena and therefore our dialogue has always been of critical importance. Over the past 20 years, the focus of the interaction between our institution and the Russian government has changed, from being heavily focused on operational activities in the late 1990-s and beginning of the 2000-s in the Northern Caucasus to a greater emphasis on a wide range of humanitarian issues, which are of strategic importance in international relations. At the same time, we are operational in Russia, not least with support to the most vulnerable people displaced from Ukraine and also support for families of the missing. Russia is a key actor in the international system that can help the ICRC fulfill its humanitarian mandate, and we highly appreciate the dialogue with Russia on global humanitarian problems.

Q.: What is your assessment of Russia‘s contribution to the ICRC activity? Do you expect that Russia will become a donor to the organization?

A.: Throughout its history, Russia has contributed greatly to the development of international humanitarian law. The level of the ICRC’s interaction with the Russian authorities has deepened since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, and even more so with the beginning of the Russian military campaign in Syria. We are looking forward to intensifying cooperation with the Russian government on important humanitarian issues of mutual interest, be they legal, diplomatic, political, operational or financial.
Since 2012, the Russian government has contributed $4 million to our humanitarian action, and we look forward to further possible cooperation with the Russian government on humanitarian financing. We would also like to see Russia progress towards becoming a major donor to the ICRC.

Q.: Syria is a large ICRC operation from the funding point of view. Does the ICRC have enough funds to accomplish its missions in Syria? What is your assessment of the situation in Aleppo? What is your assessment of the role of Russia‘s military contingent in combating terrorists and stabilizing the situation in the country?

A.: In 2016, Syria was our largest operation, with a budget of 176 million Swiss Francs. The donor community’s response to this appeal was strong, enabling the ICRC to meet its financial needs this year for Syria. That said, sadly, the conflict in Syria is already protracted and we know that the needs will remain enormous tomorrow and for the years to come. In 2017, the ICRC is counting on the international community to continue its support for our work in Syria, as well as in other countries such as Ukraine, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We strongly believe that neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian assistance and protection activities as delivered by the ICRC are the best form of humanitarian response for the people concerned, for parties to conflicts and for the international community, which is politically divided over the Syrian conflict.
The humanitarian situation in Aleppo remains alarming, and civilians continue to bear the brunt of the suffering. We know the health, water and sanitation situation is desperate in Eastern Aleppo and we need to bring in supplies, including medical equipment and spare parts to repair networks.
We haven’t been able to bring in aid since eastern Aleppo since April 2016. We need security guarantees from all sides and unimpeded access to all parts of the city.
Our message is the same to all parties to the conflict and all those who have influence on them - they must respect and ensure that international humanitarian law is respected. The warring parties must bear in mind the direct and indirect effect of their attacks on Syria’s battered infrastructure, in particular on healthcare facilities and water installations, which are often hit several times. The ICRC urges all parties to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas, due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects.

Q.: Why have attempts to supply humanitarian aid to eastern Aleppo failed?

A.: In order to bring in aid to eastern Aleppo – which we have not been able to do since April 2016 - we need security guarantees from all sides and unimpeded access to all parts of the city. The work of humanitarians should be separated from any political interest or gain. Humanitarian response to the needs of the people who are suffering from the ongoing fighting, should not be used at any point to achieve political gains. Ceasefire or not, we need to be able to act and provide relief to communities affected by the fighting.

Q.: Does the ICRC maintain contacts with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra? Does the ICRC manage to give assistance to people of Syrian territories controlled by these terrorist organizations? Do these terrorist organizations comply with the international humanitarian law of armed conflicts?

A.: The ICRC seeks a humanitarian dialogue with all parties to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq - just as it does elsewhere. It is vital to try to engage with all sides in a conflict to maintain or eventually create a humanitarian space. In fact, our humanitarian mandate demands that we engage with all parties to a conflict. The central aim of all such contacts is to try to relieve the suffering of civilians caught up in conflict. The details of this dialogue remain confidential.

Q.: Do you plan to discuss in Moscow the situation in eastern Ukraine? In your opinion, has the humanitarian situation in Donbas changed and if yes, then how? What tasks does the ICRC face in eastern Ukraine? What assistance do you expect from Russia?

A.: Indeed, the situation in Ukraine is high on the agenda for my visit, along with the devastating situation in the Middle East. Ukraine is among our largest operations in terms of staff and budget – the eighth biggest worldwide - and Russia can play a critical role in helping to resolve some of the most pressing humanitarian issues for people living there, as well as supporting those who have fled from the fighting to southern Russia.
The humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine itself is of serious concern. Despite a new agreement in September to reinforce the cease fire, shelling is occurring on a daily basis, mostly at night but even during the daytime in some areas which were previously calm. This, clearly, is a very worrying development and we are concerned about its effect on civilians trying to go about their daily lives. First, the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas should be avoided. Second, beyond the immediate effects of the fighting, people living in some villages on the front line are cut off from supplies and from adequate health care – often, the aid we provide is their only means of survival. It’s a grim and difficult existence for many.
In particular, maintaining a reliable supply of water and electricity for people living in areas affected by the conflict is a huge humanitarian issue, especially with the freezing winter arriving. In October, the ICRC exceptionally stepped in to pay electricity bills in the Luhansk region in order to resume the water supply to 600,000 people that had been cut off owing to unpaid electricity bills, but it is urgent to find a sustainable solution to ensure people have access to water. We are calling upon the parties to intensify their discussions on the provision of and payment for water.
In addition, there are a large number of people, mostly men, still unaccounted for as a result of the fighting. We are grateful for the efforts of the sides on this issue in the last months and want to build on this momentum to find ways to move forward to resolve the issue with the full commitment of all concerned. As long as the fate of those missing is unknown, their families endure pain and worry.
We were also encouraged by the agreement at the most recent meeting on the Normandy Quartet to allow our teams greater access to detainees on both sides of the line. We are counting on the support of Russia, along with the other members of the Quartet, to ensure this moves forward and materializes.
We are working as hard as we can on finding solutions for these issues - issues which we believe Russia can play also an important role in resolving and which I hope to discuss with the officials I will meet in the course of my visit.