INTERVIEW: From Tigray to Aleppo - The challenges of humanitarian assistance 

Bassem Aly , Saturday 22 May 2021

The vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross speaks to Al-Ahram Weekly about the challenges of humanitarian assistance in war-torn countries

From Tigray to Aleppo 

Gilles Carbonnier, vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was in Egypt for a three-day visit during which he met with top-level officials to discuss joint action on Covid-19 as well as the humanitarian activities of the organisation. 

In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly on 6 May in Cairo, Carbonnier spoke of the humanitarian situation in conflict-hit countries in the Middle East and Africa, including Libya, Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia. 

What were the highlights of your visit to Egypt?

It was three full days of mainly interacting with the Egyptian authorities, the Red Crescent Society, and the partners with whom we develop our humanitarian activities in the country. It was an occasion to remind ourselves of the fact that we have had an excellent relationship with Egypt for more than 100 years.

The ICRC was already present in Egypt during World War I when we visited prisoners of war. Since then, the ICRC has worked to alleviate suffering and has responded to every major crisis Egypt has known. Today, we are working with the Egyptian Red Crescent and the Ministry of Health to offer support during Covid-19.

Part of my visit included looking at what we have done so far and the steps that we will take in order to be able to support our counterparts in Egypt. For instance, there was recently a major train accident. We helped by strengthening the capacity of health workers to deal with mass casualties and save lives during such an event.

We engage with the Foreign Ministry on a range of issues, including promoting international humanitarian law as it applies to large-scale armed violence and conflicts. We have discussed with the Ministry of Social Solidarity some of the humanitarian challenges in the region and the activities we run with the Egyptian Red Crescent to support vulnerable people in North Sinai. The Egyptian Red Crescent, with our support, is running food and non-food programmes for people who face difficulties and are affected by the situation in North Sinai.

The ICRC has major operations today in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Libya. These are all issues of interest for Egypt, and my visit provided an opportunity to discuss ongoing humanitarian challenges in neighbouring countries and the protection we provide to the populations affected by these crises. I also gave a lecture at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies which allowed me to meet with researchers from different generations and discuss the economic aspects of protracted crises. 

Have you spoken to the interim authorities in Libya? And what, amid Covid-19, a weak economy, and post-war arrangements, are your plans there?

We have large operations in Libya, a main office in Tripoli and offices in Benghazi, Misrata and Sabha. We have been present throughout the conflict, offering emergency medical assistance, reaching out to all parties to the conflict and promoting the application of international humanitarian law which includes protecting the civilian population from harm.

We are keeping this dialogue alive to ensure that both the civilian population and infrastructure are protected in case of renewed hostilities. We have also provided food assistance, non-food items and water to people affected by the conflict.

Thousands and thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) had to leave their homes because of the conflict. If I am not mistaken, Libya has over 30,000 IDPs, and now they want to go back. The issue is when this happens. We have to be very careful because there are a lot of unexploded devices still there. There are grave threats ahead of restoring livelihoods, and we are working with all partners to resolve them. We also continue to support the health infrastructure which has been badly damaged. Medical facilities were attacked during the conflict. It is important that we work with all parties to make sure that the health infrastructure is protected. Within a month, I might visit Libya to meet our teams there to be ready for any situation that may arise in the future. 

Bearing in mind the situations in Syria and Yemen, how hard is it to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in times of conflict?

It is always difficult to work amid armed conflicts but this is our core mission, something we have been doing for over 160 years. We have learned, and improved the ways in which we can be effective in protecting civilians and providing life-saving assistance to them during armed conflicts.

If you look at Syria and Yemen, and this also applies to Libya, we see three basic trends. One is that these conflicts are protracted: they don’t last for six years like World War II. They keep going on for a decade, sometimes two or more, as has happened in Afghanistan, Columbia and Iraq. Several generations are affected by them. People are forced to raise their children, sometimes their grandchildren, in situations of protracted armed conflict. This means ICRC must try to find ways to make a sustainable, humanitarian impact. Instead of providing food assistance forever, we are concerned about how we can provide the affected population with income-generating job opportunities so that they have a livelihood and a dignified life. What we also see is that people need connectivity during protracted armed conflicts. They need mobile phones and Internet connections which help them speak to loved ones and relatives, access information about the situation and take measures to protect themselves and their children as much as they can. We provide assistance that responds to these evolving needs.

Another trend is that armed conflicts have become urban. We have seen images of, and heard about, the destruction in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Taiz and Marib. When armed conflicts happen in densely-populated cities and artillery and heavy explosives are used, it becomes more difficult to protect civilians.

A third aspect, which adds further complexity, is the fragmentation of armed actors. This has been the case in Libya. We have to make sure that all armed groups appreciate what the ICRC is doing and engage with it to ensure our teams can safely operate.

The humanitarian consequences in Syria and Yemen are horrific for the populations. Syria, which was a middle-income country with a sophisticated health system, is now a low-income one with a partially-destroyed health system. Its basic infrastructure is on the brink of collapse, a major concern for us, and we have been calling on the international community to support us in maintaining vital infrastructure. This is a priority because if electricity-generating systems collapse you cannot ensure the provision and pumping of water to the population and this can lead to epidemics in urban centres and beyond.

Maintaining medical infrastructure is key. We operate at scale in Syria: it is our eighth year in a row and our Syria operation is the major one for us in terms of budget. Today — although some people might believe that the situation is improving because armed conflict has receded in some parts of the country — the humanitarian situation remains dire amid an intense economic crisis. The Syrian people need life-saving aid. The situation is extremely tense in terms of food security. We estimate that about two-thirds of the population needs some form of humanitarian assistance. In Yemen three-quarters of the population needs humanitarian assistance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added a layer of complexity. In its wake some of our major donors face major budget constraints and budgetary priorities have shifted from foreign aid to domestic issues related to the pandemic. We do everything we can in this context. I would like to highlight that — in Syria just as Yemen — there is no humanitarian solution to the conflict. We need a political solution. The ICRC is not responsible for engaging in political discussions. 

Internal conflicts in Ethiopia, in the Tigray region and elsewhere, have resulted in a refugee crisis in Sudan. How are you dealing with the situation? 

It is a very worrying situation. We had a team in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, before the conflict started, and have remained present and active in Mekelle and Tigray, the only humanitarian organisation to do so.

As soon as we could, we arranged a convoy to bring medical supplies to Mekelle, and from there to other towns of Tigray. Our priority during the conflict was to treat those who had been wounded.

We have also seen a massive movement of population fleeing the hostilities. We have opened offices in Gedaref in neighbouring Sudan and, together with other organisations like the UNHCR, we have provided direct response to 72,000 Tigrayan people in Sudan.

In Sudan we worked to restore family links and allow people to connect with their families.

We are still very much active in Tigray, building our humanitarian response in terms of the provision of water, food and non-food items to support the medical mission. We are also engaging with parties to the conflict, underlining the basic rules that should be respected in armed conflicts and trying to persuade them to protect civilians from the impact of hostilities and respond to their needs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weeky

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