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Rethinking Humanitarianism | Weapons as aid?

‘What is the best humanitarian aid for Ukraine? I'm sorry to say, but I say it's weapons.’

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End the crisis or long may we treat the symptoms. This is the cry from Ukrainians as the Russian invasion enters a sixth month. As one guest on today’s episode puts it: “Weapons will end the killing of people, which would be the best doctor.”

But can weapons ever really be considered humanitarian aid? And how would that serve the hallmark humanitarian principle of neutrality?

Some certainly think it’s time to reconsider. And this shift in thinking goes well beyond Ukraine as well; from Geneva to Syria, humanitarians are asking whether its prudent – or even possible – to be neutral under fire.

In this special pop-up episode, host Heba Aly speaks with Yevheniia Kravchuk, a Ukrainian member of parliament, Ukrainian first aid responder Fedir Serdiuk, and Robert Mardini, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Rethinking Humanitarianism will be back later this year, unless another pop-up takes our fancy. To revisit previous episodes – or to catch up on our podcast series on innovations in the humanitarian sector – subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

Transcript | Weapons as aid?

Yevheniia Kravchuk:

What is the best humanitarian aid for Ukraine? I'm sorry to say, but I say it's weapons. It's heavy weapons to kick Russians out.

Heba Aly:

That’s Yevheniia Kravchuk, a Ukrainian member of parliament, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May.

Since then, the battle for the eastern region of Donbas has deepened, the once-besieged city of Mariupol has been captured, and residents of Ukraine’s second-largest centre Kharkiv are returning to a city in tatters with the front line never far enough away.

Almost five months into the Russian invasion, Ukraine is facing multiple humanitarian crises. With seven million people internally displaced, ten million in need of food, and aid operations are challenged throughout the country and the war seems to be entering a protracted phase.

Diplomatic pressure, divestment, and sanctions have all been slow moving in the face of daily shelling.

So what to do? Weapons as humanitarian aid?

I'm Heba Aly, and this is a pop-up edition of rethinking humanitarianism.

Weapons as humanitarian aid – that kind of talk is unheard of in the international community, where neutrality and impartiality have long been hallmarks of humanitarian action, sacred principles considered core to the endeavour.

But in recent years, these principles have been put into question, most notably by local aid workers in places like Syria who ask how they can be expected to be neutral when they are being bombed by their own government. And today, we’re seeing similar challenges to the humanitarian principles in Ukraine.

So what are the implications? Are humanitarians ready to take a stance? Are the days of apolitical humanitarian action over? Did they ever exist? And how should the aid community engage with an emerging form of nationalistic humanitarianism that sees neutrality as hurtful rather than helpful?

Later, we’ll hear from the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which finds itself at the very heart of this debate.

But I’d like to start our conversation in Ukraine.

A few weeks ago, before the fall of Mariupol, I spoke to Yevheniya Kravchuk, a Ukrainian member of parliament you heard from at the start of the episode, as well as Ukrainian first aid responder Fedir Serdiuk.

Yevheniya is the deputy head of Ukraine’s ruling party in parliament and the deputy chair of the parliamentary committee on humanitarian and information policy.

And Fedir runs a company that provides health and safety consulting for businesses, but has diverted his energy to training civilians, police officers, and the Ukrainian army in first aid.

Yevheniia and Fedir are joining me from Kiev. Welcome to the podcast.

Kravchuk:

Hi, good to hear you.

Serdiuk:

Hello, hello.

Aly:

So both of you have been involved in one way or another in the volunteer humanitarian efforts and, more broadly, the efforts to help Ukraine out of this crisis, but I want to just better understand how you got here. So Yevheniia, could you tell us a little bit about yourself. You're a journalist by training, how did you come to be in a position where you're in places like Davos advocating for support for your country,

Kravchuk:

I became a Member of Parliament in 2019. I didn't imagine that in 2022 I'd be in places like Davos or travelling to different capitals – to DC to Ottawa to Brussels – to advocate for Ukraine, which is in struggle for its independence. So basically, my career started when I was in the institute of journalism. I was working on TV, and then I joined a crew that made documentaries. And then I was, for 10 years, an advisor on communications to different politicians. And then I became, I was invited to the team by President Zelensky. And basically now, my people cannot go to those places that I'm being invited to give all these interviews to raise the question of this war of aggression. I go and speak to people to get more help to Ukraine. So Ukraine could win.

Aly:

Fedir, what about you? How did you come to be delivering medical aid in a war zone?

Serdiuk:

For me, the war started eight years ago. I was in almost the last year of my bachelor's degree. And then Russia started to use hybrid warfare against Ukraine and I felt like I have to react. The best response seemed to be joining the Red Cross, for leading this disaster management. But then, when Russia started to use more conventional warfare, I received training as a combat lifesaver and tactical medic. Basically, I was volunteering for several years training the Ukrainian and military by myself. To fund these activities, I established a company which conducted first aid training for civilians. And then we added more and more services, started to focus on serving corporate needs in health and safety, then eventually I turned into a businessman. But then with the large-scale invasion of 2022, I’m back to basics. So I'm now in the position of a team leader, or let's say, a CEO of the group of instructors who conduct tactical medical training, who do some more interesting stuff and mainly focused on medical aid. But basically what is the red line for all these eight years of activities is that it is dedicated to save human lives from causes which could lead to death but could be prevented by timely first aid application.

Aly:

And I asked a bit about your background because I think it helps people to put into context the perspectives you're going to share later in this conversation. I moderated a discussion with both of you in Davos about the humanitarian response in Ukraine, and both of you came to the same conclusion about what was most needed. And especially coming from the backgrounds that you do, some of those perspectives surprise me. So I want to delve into them a little bit. Yevheniia, walk us through that argument that we heard at the beginning that weapons are the best humanitarian response.

Kravchuk:

Every day, I feel that I’m right, saying this argument that weapons could be the best relief and the best way to help. There are different humanitarian crises are caused by different things. You know, it could be a natural disaster. Basically, what the community has to do is only help people because you can't do anything except doing whatever we would do for climate change, and everything we [talk] about. But in Ukraine, this humanitarian crisis was caused by an aggressor, who came to invade our land, and to kill our people. Of course, we need fuel, we need tourniquets, we need medicine, but we will be needing these for years if the aggressor would not be stopped. Because helping people who are suffering is a continuous thing. We have a lot of people who had to relocate, at least seven million people who changed their location. So they came to other territories, more relatively safe. But, why I say more because, in any territory can get a missile strike, rocket flying to this territory, but still, we have a full operational government, local councils, people, they have access to medicine to online, at least, schooling to social security, we would need more money to finance this, but we can handle that. And then you have these territories that you see that were occupied by Russians. And when you come to the surgery, it's all ruined, you have to bring food, water, gas, electricity – how can Ukraine help those people? We can’t help unless we kick Russians out, go there, liberate this land, and help people. So that's why we need weapons to kick them out. Because we should have the strong position on the battlefield, not being asked to capitulate or something.

Aly:

And so your analogy with climate change is that in a natural disaster, it happens once it's over. And then people need the humanitarian aid, but in a conflict it’s a different dynamic.

Kravchuk:

In a conflict, you could be sending this medicine for five years. But if you do not send the weapons to end this, because that's the only way to do it.

Aly:

Fedir, what about you, you talked about being motivated in everything you've done to date by saving lives. You're a first responder, you know, you're short on equipment and need more medicine, but instead of calling for tourniquets, you're calling for weapons as well. So walk me through your thinking,

Serdiuk:

It's very important to understand the true KPIs (key performance indicators) of one’s activities and the organisation, mission, and operation. So my KPIs, my points of being effective, are not based on how many patients would I treat, and how many tourniquets would apply. Or how many wounds would I pack. My true KPI and my ruling is to save the lives of people here in Ukraine. Basically, I don't want people to die. The root cause analysis leads me to the conclusion that the only way to stop this awful suffering with tens of thousands of casualties is to win this war. I mean, Ukrainian victory is so far, the only scenario I can really believe and consider as the real one. Why weapons though? The only thing Ukraine is now lacking, or the primary thing is this more than effective weapons systems, we surely need financial support as a country, we need humanitarian support, but the root cause analysis listed a conclusion that weapons will end the killing of people, which would be the best doctor, in my opinion.

Aly:

I mentioned this point of view to the head of an organisation and the word he used to describe it was bloodthirsty. What do you make of that?

Serdiuk:

Striking the peaceful cities with artillery and airstrikes and everything is bloodthirsty I can agree, but not if the mission and the willingness to defend your country from the genocide is bloodthirsty, then I do not understand anything in this life.

Kravchuk:

Bloodthirsty is what happened in Bucha. What happened in Borodyanka, in Irpin, those small cities near Kiev. I'm totally sure that if Russian soldiers would go inside of the Ukrainian capital, they would do the same. Of course, you know, our soldiers are fighting back and killing Russian soldiers. But that doesn't make them blood thirsty. They didn't start it.

Aly:

So I don't think anyone would question Ukraine's right to defend itself militarily. I think what where this starts to get provocative actually is defining that as a humanitarian response and the way you're framing it is a more extreme articulation of that. But I'm increasingly hearing the same sentiment from many people on the receiving end of aid saying, “we don't want you to just give us the band aid solution, we want you to change the fundamental problem that is creating those humanitarian needs in the first place.” So I get that, but I think humanitarians would argue that it's not their role to do so, their role is to save lives in an emergency. The whole idea of humanitarian relief is that if war is going to happen, there should be an independent entity that is separate from politics, separate from the military that can alleviate that suffering. So Feder does that logic stand up to you?

Serdiuk:

Oh from one hand, it makes sense that we do not expect the World Food Programme to send us missiles. So if you are a humanitarian worker, we do not expect you to use your logistics capabilities to send ammunition, but we want you to stay a part of the civilised world, Because we believe now that this war, which Russia is fighting in Ukraine, and they declare it publicly, that they're not fighting Ukraine, only they're fighting the system, the rules-based world order itself. So we want people to remember that, besides the role of humanitarian aid workers, they are citizens, and they're members of the free rule-based world. And we want them to do what is possible to help us to win the war, and eventually winning the war is possible only with sending weapons.

Aly:

What you're basically arguing, though, is that Ukraine is on the right side of history, and the rest of the world should align itself to you. And I want to just read for you a quote from an article written by the International Committee of the Red Cross like 20 years ago, but I think it's extremely relevant to the conversation that we're having today. And it says: “Those who believe they have good reasons to wage war, tend to misunderstand the motives of those who, owing to their neutrality, do not support them. If a cause is just they feel, then war was legitimate, and the ends justify the means. That being the case, everyone should take part in their struggle. But there are few belligerents who do not consider their war as just and this does not make it just for their adversaries, the ICRC must not fall into the trap of stating that some wars are just and others are not. If there is one issue that humanitarian organisations must approach with great caution, it is that of the legitimacy of a cause. The ICRC cannot discriminate between victims, depending on their attachment to the good side, or the bad side. So you know, that's an argument in defence of neutrality, is there still space for neutrality in this conflict? Yevheniia.

Kravchuk:

Honestly, I don't believe in neutrality, in our case, because you can't be neutral to evil, you can't be neutral to what we have in Ukraine. I mean, all of the war crimes, specific cases that can be described, I don't know, in books, they happened in Ukraine: raping, kill, and torturing of civilians, executing them. Now we'll have filtration camps in eastern Ukraine on the occupied charges, filtration camps. I mean, we forgot about this since the Second World War. And I don't believe in neutrality in this case, because then it's sort of we're going back to this conversation, or these messages that we'll get from some of the Western leaders saying that, “Oh, we need to find ways so Putin could keep his face.” I'm sorry, he's a, you know, war criminal. It just goes beyond my understanding and beyond my mind, if there is a will from International Red Cross, or like any other international organisations, for example, to help people in temporarily occupied territories such as Mariupol, which is occupied, I don't see Russians letting them go. They're inside and [not being] given, for example, food or water, they are sort of stopping this help. Maybe international organisations would want to come and help but there is a dictator who sort of messed up all the rules.

Aly:

When the ICRC tried to enter into dialogue with the Russian government in order to be able to access Mariupol – and there was a photo of the President of the Red Cross Peter Mauer shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and that created also a big firestorm within Ukraine – so even the efforts to engage with both sides in order to address the problems that you're looking for, haven't been well received.

Kravchuk:

Imagine the picture with a devil. That's how it's seen. It's black and white. It's the only perception that we have because there is no argument that can justify a war that is happening in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are, of course, frustrated when leaders of the world or even international organisations are shaking hands as normal to the people who are giving orders to kill Ukrainians.

Serdiuk:

For me, it doesn't really make sense if you are negotiating bringing relief for a dozen people when hundreds of thousands keep suffering. And then you pretend to have great success meeting some amazing person to have a great negotiation, smiling and shaking hands. It's just bullshit for me, but no hard feelings on the Red Cross. They use their neutrality. I've been a Red Cross volunteer, I passed through a dozen different neutrality and safer access trainings. And the idea behind neutrality is that neutrality is something which was created for a reason, not just neutrality for neutrality. So you're declaring neutrality, and then you gain access to the warzone. Neutrality is your bulletproof vest, your protection, right? And it makes sense for me, okay, so I believe in this sort of tactical neutrality. But if the neutrality doesn't work, if your employees came under fire, if your volunteers are being tortured, maybe you need a real bulletproof vest. It's just about working with the consequences or root cause. And if you continue to supply two sides, instead of calling one side to stop doing what caused the humanitarian catastrophe, for me, it's not neutrality that is just a waste of the resources, because what you are doing your efforts help just to continue people to suffer.

Aly:

I mean, what you're saying is that, and again, this is an argument that has, even within the humanitarian sector been explored, the humanitarian principles should be a means to an end, they shouldn't be an end in themselves. So if abiding by those principles isn't actually helping you alleviate suffering, then you have to start questioning them. I wonder, beyond this question of neutrality, how you have seen the role of international aid agencies in your country and how effective their contribution has been. Yevheniia.

Kravchuk:

I would say the first months, they were absent. It was sort of like a big surprise for them that there could be full-scale wars in the 21st century. And when we were trying to find those people – “Can you bring aid to these regions or these, in the first weeks?” They were like, “Oh, can you call us after, you know, sort of the war ends?” Numerous NGOs, especially run by volunteers – and I think it's a volunteer’s network, which is very progressive – basically, these NGOs would go to these hotspots, and take people out, evacuating people. But they did it at their own risk. It was more efficient, having this network of small NGOs, on the local level of volunteers, then these huge organisations with huge budgets, which are spent on bureaucratic work. But when it all started, there was shock for a pretty long time, I would say. And I think we should rethink, as well, the huge bureaucratic machine – is it capable during the full-scale war or not, and what could be changed?

Aly:

Fedir, what's been your experience as someone who is working really at that grassroots level in how effective the international aid community has been in its humanitarian response.

Serdiuk:

I know many international organisations which do a great job, but there are some sort of, let's say, common illnesses of international organisations, according to my experience. First is overspending when you come to meeting somebody in a Hyatt or Hilton. The first thing you see is huge white, shiny Jeeps of humanitarian organisations which for me looks just weird, strange, and crazy. Overspending on this luxury stuff is one thing which all of the organisations should get rid of working in war just because it doesn't make any sense to continue this stuff. Second, is overwhelming bureaucracies. And I know that it is vital for, in some cases, this bureaucracy which prevents you from accomplishing your mission. The third is flexibility and agility. And this inability to change the procedures rapidly. And to keep it adequate is the problem of this organisations.

Aly:

Your first point on the luxury spending, it's not a unique case in the sense of bringing expensive four by fours into a crisis zone where people are begging for food. But it is unique in the sense that from NGOs we've spoken to, aid organisations have more money than they know what to do with in the case of Ukraine, because so many governments and others have thrown money at this crisis. And I guess that speaks to your point that that isn't enough. But more broadly, the industry that has been built around alleviating suffering is really struggling right now, because there is so much suffering around the world and nowhere near enough resources to help everyone. And so what I hear in your message is that there has to be a different model, a more viable model of alleviating suffering in the world today. I don't know if everyone would agree with you that weapons is that model. But certainly when you've got a United Nations infrastructure that is intended to prevent conflict, and that is blocked at the Security Council, because one of the aggressors of the conflict is a member of the P5, you've got a model that I think raises a lot of questions. So moving forward, what is a more viable model when it comes to writ large alleviating suffering in the world in this day and age?

Kravchuk:

If you do not talk, what was the cause of this crisis and war, you will have consequences in different parts of the world. If you do not treat what caused the illness, the illness will go to other parts of the body. That's how it works. You can say whatever about the process of giving humanitarian aid and relief. But if you do not stop the reason why it appeared, it will appear in other parts of the world.

Serdiuk:

And sometimes the principles which are proven to be effective, and which made sense just two days or a week ago, they no longer make sense. And they should be reconsidered. And calling for weapons as a part of humanitarian relief would be an absolutely crazy idea before that crazy invasion of February 24th. But the events changed, reality changed, and it's no longer crazy, but a realistic, truthful way to save human lives from suffering.

Aly:

It is a timely debate, one that isn't straightforward. And I'm not sure there are easy answers to this. But this call for a more activist or less neutral humanitarianism is certainly being heard in more than one corner of the world. So I thank you both very much for bringing your perspective, and especially amid everything else you're going through, for taking the time to speak to me.

Kravchuk

Thank you.

Serdiuk:

Thank you very much, goodbye.

Aly:

So what does this emerging more nationalistic flavour of humanitarianism mean for the traditional aid sector?

Sure, humanitarians aren’t going to send weapons to Ukraine, but they are increasingly under pressure from people affected by crises to “stand on the right side of history”.

How do they respond to these challenges to neutrality?

Robert Mardini is the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which you’ve heard referenced quite a bit in this past interview, and is arguably the aid agency most affected by this debate, not only because it really birthed the whole concept of neutrality in aid, which is core to its works, but also because in this specific case of Ukraine, as we've just heard, many have accused the ICRC of not being neutral.

Robert, welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Robert Mardini:

Thank you for having me, Heba.

Aly:

So I’m very curious to hear what you think of what you’ve just heard.

Mardini:

Well I think, as a human being, it’s always hard to be neutral, and I understand where your invitees are coming from. As Ukrainians bearing witness to a full-blown international armed conflict where their family members, their fellow Ukrainians are being killed and wounded every day, people losing their homes or hospitals being targeted. So it is legitimate to be in a situation of outrage. I myself grew up in war-torn Lebanon, and as an individual now I remember that it is very hard to be neutral, you have very strong views on the conflict dynamics, on whether a war is just or not just, so I understand this as a human being.

The point is now as an ICRC delegate, we have those principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity, and independence, and over time not only do they provide a moral compass, but also they provide an operational framework that makes them work in concrete terms. Of course, it’s not automatic, it’s hard. You need to convince belligerents – parties to the conflict – who will, in turn, convince you to embrace their own narrative of a given conflict. But it's actually those principles and the discipline of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers [and] staff over the past 150 years that made things such as the release of the Chibok girls happen in Nigeria, the visit of Nelson Mandela in his detention facility take place at the height of apartheid, to be able to bring human remains of fighters and combatants to their families in conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh, Lebanon/Israel, or more recently, the conflict in Ukraine, where my colleagues were able to repatriate and hand over human remains of soldiers to their families. Also the safe evacuation of civilians from Mariupol. But it was possible because we were able to walk the talk of neutrality and overcome some of the perceptions that existed – by people, by warring sides – and this is having a concrete impact on the ground. It's not perfect. It doesn't work all the time. Let's face it. It comes with frustrations of our own delegates, people who are in dire need of support. But I think with discipline and determination, it works. It works. This is the message and I think it's misleading. I mean, let's call things by their names, sending weapons in a country is contributing to the war effort. This is – from a political perspective – this is legitimate. From a humanitarian perspective, this is not humanitarian aid. This is military support, right?

Aly:

But what do you make of the logic that if you talk about humanitarianism, or humanitarians, focusing on saving lives in a conflict that if your measure of success, as Fedir was arguing, is to actually save lives that sending weapons is more likely to succeed at saving lives than continuing to send relief when people continue to die? So, are the indicators of success wrong?

Mardini:

Well, I think those are two separate things, Heba, and they are legitimate in their own rights. And I would never argue that humanitarian support will solve the conflict. What is needed most is that all the conflicts are solved, and my hope and my wish is that the political solution is found. So that the conflict in Ukraine and many other conflicts where the ICRC works, finds a political resolution. This is not the work of the ICRC. This is not the scope of work of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. We have a modest objective and also the KPIs that go with this objective which is: During war, there are rules which limit human suffering, and there are operational modalities that help people – Red Cross, the Ukrainian Red Cross, the ICRC teams – negotiate access across front lines to help people to support hospitals, to reestablish water supplies. And it's not one to the detriment of the other. Political efforts and diplomatic tracks should continue unabated to stop the conflict in the first place. And there are KPIs for this. And the work of the ICRC is another thing. So it’s the difference between the laws of war during armed conflict, so jus in bello and the jus ad bellum which is: Is this conflict legitimate or not? This is… I have a personal opinion here, but as ICRC I will recuse myself to give this opinion because this is not my job. It's the job of politicians, it is the role of the UN Security Council, it is the role of the international community. It is not the role of ICRC.

Aly:

So you say this isn't the scope of the ICRC I think, what they are arguing to some extent is that maybe it should be. And so do you see that as a misunderstanding of neutrality or the beginnings of a new definition of what neutrality is or should be? I mean, we, you've you've been in the midst of a huge backlash within Ukraine after that photo of Peter Mauer smiling as he was shaking sort of a level of hand. And the reaction was No, you shouldn't be speaking to all sides of a conflict. Why? So what one tweet on Twitter in response to the ICRC saying: you are no longer neutral since your CEO shook hands with the Russian Foreign Minister. So, you know, this whole mentality of as one of your staff told me, you're either with us or against us kind of going back to the sentiment of the 9/11 mantra. They see a clear good and bad in this case, and engaging with the bad means that you’re on the wrong side of history. How do you respond to that kind of backlash that you've been receiving?

Mardini:

This is why, with this kind of rhetoric, we need the humanitarian principles, one of which is neutrality. They really give us a moral compass and an operating framework to be able to do our job, which is to alleviate human suffering. And you refer to this meeting of our president with the Russian foreign minister, I mean, a week before he met with the Ukrainian authorities, and he had the same type of pictures and the same tweets. And I'm sorry, at the end of the day, this is not the first conflict where the ICRC is pictured as losing in neutrality, because by definition, parties to the conflict will always try to use humanitarian aid, humanitarian actors to fit their respective narratives. And I think we need to stand our ground because over time over the past 159 years of existence, despite this almost systematic instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid and the concepts of neutrality, impartiality, it ended up always paying off in the best interests of people.

Aly:

You say that Robert, but – to the point that was made earlier about the principles being a means to an end and not an end in themselves – despite your neutrality, your access in Ukraine has been quite limited, at least at times during the conflict.

Mardini:

Well in the beginning, it was a challenge, an operational challenge to start an operation from scratch. I think the international community, the whole planet, was taken aback by this full-blown international armed conflict, but I think today, three months into the humanitarian operation, where the ICRC was able to scale up, massively, its presence in Ukraine with more than 700 staff working in 10 locations close to the front lines. I mean, 8 million people regained access to drinking water, including the populations in Bucha and Irpin. In almost no time the water supply was reestablished. 200,000 highly vulnerable people across Ukraine got access to cash assistance, almost a million people in IDP centres received food parcels. We supported more than 120 hospitals and primary healthcare centres. We were able to facilitate the evacuation of civilians from multiple cities. In Ukraine, we are visiting prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict. We are bringing news to the families who are anxious about their whereabouts. One 1,900 families were informed about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Aly:

So I guess the argument is that it won't work in every situation; but in many situations it is working. And even if it doesn't work in Ukraine, that neutrality and perception of neutrality helps you elsewhere.

Mardini:

I’m saying all of this is happening in Ukraine. I mean, the first weeks were tough. But now we are able to operate with the Ukrainian water boards, with the Ministry of Health, with the social welfare system, with the Ukraine Red Cross. And these activities are saving lives today. And I think this is the result of walking the talk of neutrality and standing the ground.

Aly:

So I am hearing you saying actually being neutral has given you this access, but the person that how politicised this debate has been in Ukraine has also had implications on your operations and this vitriol that you were getting on social media and so on. How has that landscape or this very politicised environment in which the concept of neutrality isn't really respected by the parties to the conflict – how is that affecting your ability to operate?

Mardini:

Well, that was challenging Heba. And I think the misinformation, disinformation, hate speech that was really also taken to social media had an impact also on our access in the field. It is not new. I mean, it always happened in the physical world. Now we've seen unprecedented magnitude in the digital space. And we need to be able to push back again against this. But now we know for a fact that it was a targeted misinformation/disinformation campaign against the ICRC. We know this because more than 95% of mentions on this came from bots – automated or shady – and inauthentic accounts. So we know this. And this does not represent what the vast majority of Ukrainians today benefiting from this support and this help tell us when we meet them; when we cross front lines. And so it's only part of the reality that is inflated – that is challenging, that we need to address. But it's not the full reality. Maybe it has reached an unprecedented scale and magnitude in Ukraine. But it also existed in places like Ethiopia – in Tigray – and also in Syria 10 years ago, but it did not did not have this level of sophistication, I would say.

Aly:

As you say, this isn't just a question of Ukraine; and Ethiopia is a great example, in Syria as well. This is a new reality. And I think with the sector moving towards localisation and a push for more local aid delivery, it's going to be something the sector faces more and more with local humanitarians, saying ‘it's impossible to expect us to be neutral’ and and in you pretending to be neutral, or saying that you're neutral, as we heard earlier, ‘you can't be neutral to evil’. So, to what extent is this principle – as much as you want to stand by it – being tested by the rest of the environment in which you are operating, more than it has been in the past?

Mardini:

Well, I think here again, the KPI, to me, is the families who received the human remains of their loved ones. The KPI is the civilians who chose to stay, in places like Irpin and Bucha, having access to drinking water. The KPI to me is the doctors and nurses are able to operate in hospitals in Ukraine, because they got support from the Ukrainian Red Cross or the ICRC. These are the KPIs for us. And today okay, we can, of course, look at the glass half full or half empty because we need to do much more and I'm not pretending that we are able to cover all needs because of the sheer magnitude and the level of devastation that we’re seeing day in and day out. And now, it's happening as we speak in the Donbas. But I think, again, it's so important to remember if you lose this space for neutral humanitarian action. Let's imagine for a moment what this could have looked like in the wake of 9/11. The rhetoric at the time was: to be on the side of the coalition, or you're on the side of the terrorists, right? How many conflicts, people are labelled with terrorists?

I mean, for us, we don't use this label, because they are human beings. They still have rights by law, they still have families who deserve to hear from them. It may not be popular in such moments, to not to not pick a side, but our neutrality allowed us to continue to access detainees in Guantanamo, many of whom remember were released without charges. So I think it's not only a short term thing, standing our ground on neutrality is a long term endeavour. And I think it's, it would be a big mistake now to just mix things and have humanitarian organisations having political agendas. I’m not saying that all of the entire humanitarian sector should follow the blueprint of impartial, neutral, independent humanitarian action. I'm just saying that this is the choice of ICRC. There are other humanitarian organisations embracing political causes, and who are also saving lives. The point is: When the conflict dynamic changes, when the front lines shift, and when the other side is controlling the communities that they were serving the day before, they lose access to the communities. That's the difference.

Aly:

But I think the challenge is that, yes, the ICRC’s model was never meant to be everyone's model, but it has become the dominant understanding of how humanitarianism should be. And thus those organisations that aren't neutral are put in a more difficult position. Though, you know him well of course, Hugo Slim, who was formerly head of policy at ICRC and an academic and researcher, he wrote a piece for us arguing there was a long history of non-neutral humanitarianism. And we see that all the time, the UN in Congo, faith-based organisations, for the Norwegian People’s Aid, solidarity with the people that they aim to help supersedes neutrality and impartiality – that's the way they view their work. So, I mean, are we overstating the role of the principles in the wider community?

Mardini:

It is interesting what you say, Heba, because over the past 20 years, I’ve seen more and more organisations evoking the neutral, impartial approach as being the panacea. But again, we’ve never said that impartial, neutral humanitarian action should be the blueprint for all other organisations. Organisations that are openly supportive of a party [to conflict] can do valuable work, but might not be able to cross front lines and that’s the point I made before. Very often we hear – in highly polarised contexts and conflict – we hear from both sides that we are not neutral, which I think to me is a good indicator that we are. It's another KPI that I track very rigorously. And it's always good to ensure that also in terms of perception, we are in the middle because this is the best guarantee for us to be able to make a difference on the ground and to have our teams - and when I say our teams, it’s not just ICRC, but it's also you mentioned localisation, national Red Cross Red Crescent societies with whom we work hand in hand and we cross front lines – also work in in a safe way and being protected by their emblem and the perception that they are truly neutral.

Aly:

But it's not only being challenged on the ground by the parties to the conflict, I'm hearing the principles being challenged in places like Geneva by humanitarians themselves, saying it's time to revisit the principles. Is there anything that would lead you as the ICRC to revisit those principles?

Mardini:

I don’t think so, frankly, because today it's very hard to imagine what would the alternative be. And this reminds me a lot of discussions around the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law because one could argue, when you look at many of the conflicts raging across the globe, that actually the Geneva Conventions are not working, they are being violated everyday. So let's rethink the Geneva Conventions. Fact of the matter, Heba, is that the adventures were negotiated over three months by all states. So today, they are hard law. If you now scratch them, or scratch the humanitarian principles…

Aly:

You’d get something worse…

Mardini: …Good luck to find a consensus, and the consensus would be the lowest possible denominator. And it will be the rule of the jungle. So this is why I stand my ground as ICRC and we I think we need to stand our ground in terms of those principles, who actually stood the acid test of times.

And my wish today for Ukraine is that the Russia/Ukraine international armed conflict does not add up to the long list of protracted conflict, because this is my main concern. And this is where the call is really for the international community, for parties to the conflict to find solutions sooner rather than later to stop the fighting. And I fully agree that it's not humanitarian aid that will that will stop this.

Aly:

But you won't be sending weapons to Ukraine anytime soon..

Mardini:

Absolutely not.

Aly:

Robert, thank you very much. I know it's a sensitive topic and has been the subject of much debate within your organisation. And I appreciate you speaking to us about it.

Mardini:

Thank you for having me, Heba

Aly:

For more detail on how the ICRC found itself engulfed by a neutrality row in Ukraine, check out a story we published back in May. And for more on the broader issue of neutrality, you might be interested in an opinion piece, written - as it happens - by the former head of policy at the ICRC, Hugo Slim, who argues that you don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian. We’ll post the links to both pieces in the shownotes, which you can find, as always, at thenewhumanitarian.org/podcast.

To stay up to date on humanitarian news out of Ukraine and beyond, you can also sign up to our free newsletter at thenewhumantiarian.org/subscribe.

If you’ve got thoughts on this episode or topics you’d like to see us covering, write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected] And if you’re enjoying the podcast, we really appreciate you rating, reviewing, and sharing to help others discover it.

Today we’ll leave you with an excerpt from a TEDx Talk by author Anna Baltzer called “The Danger of Neutrality.”

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf, Sara Cuevas, and Whitney Patterson.

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

CLIP: “I’ve always thought of myself as a fair person, a do-gooder, a peace-maker. I always try to stay neutral in situations of conflict, rather than taking a side. I thought that was the moral high-ground. But I was wrong.

We hear about the importance of neutrality all the time. Reporting should be fair and balanced. Our opinions should be fair and balanced. Our perfect example if Israel-Palestine.

It’s complicated, we’re told. Shouldn’t we be a moderating force?

I had to question these assumptions when I travelled there. I found a system of segregated roads. I comforted a friend whose baby…

What did it mean for me to remain impartial as I witnessed these injustices? Whom did my impartiality benefit? It became clear that neutrality wasn’t a catalyst for mediation or change, it was the exact opposite. It maintained the power imbalance exactly as it was - leaving the scales tipped in favour of those with power.”

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