INTERVIEW: Battling on multiple humanitarian fronts

Doaa El-Bey , Friday 28 Jan 2022

Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East of the International Committee of the Red Cross, tells Al-Ahram Wekly there can be no end to violence without political will.


Fabrizio Carboni has been regional director for the Near and Middle East of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since September 2018. He was head of the ICRC delegation in Lebanon for four years before taking over as the head of the delegation in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2017. Carboni was in Cairo on a four-day visit to meet officials in Egypt’s foreign and health ministries.

What is the aim of your visit to Egypt?

For the ICRC, Egypt is a very important country. We have a long history dating from World War II when we visited detainees in Egypt. Today, Egypt is a country that has a unique position for us. It has one foot in Africa, one in the Middle East and one in the Mediterranean. It is a kind of a crossroads. When you look at the map or at the Egypt’s neighbours you see the challenges. The ICRC has important operations in Sudan, Libya, Ethiopia and Gaza. It is key for us to have dialogue with Egypt which is trying to play a constructive role in all these areas.

The authorities in Egypt are interested in the law of armed conflict and in humanitarian action, issues that we discuss with universities, the armed forces and government bodies.

It is the responsibility of the ICRC to promote and develop the law of armed conflict and help states that want to improve their knowledge of international humanitarian law. It is also interesting for us, as an organisation, to hear what states have to say about the challenges around the law, how it can be integrated and how it can be applied.

We count a lot on Egypt in Geneva and New York. Egypt plays an active role in promoting humanitarian values. We also have constructive relations with the Egyptian Red Crescent, an important partner for us. We managed, in cooperation with the Egyptian Red Crescent, to support people affected by the situation in North Sinai and we hope to do more.

We started by food distribution but now we work on what we call livelihood, that is to help the poorest families develop their own business and have the capacity to be autonomous. It is important to give people the opportunity not to rely on humanitarian support.

You took part in the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh earlier this month, and talked about climate change. How does climate change affect people, particularly during conflicts?

If you look at the countries most affected by climate change, you will see an overlap with countries affected by conflict.

When conflicts take place, the climate crisis can make the situation even worse. Take the situation in Yemen where there is conflict, but also falling levels of water. The challenge for the ICRC, on one hand, is to help people face and adjust to the climate change, and on the other to ensure the impact of our work does not aggravate the climate crisis. This is a problem. Money to tackle the climate crisis, whether from the private sector or states, does not go to areas affected by conflict. The paradox is the people who need that climate money most are the ones not receiving it because it is more difficult and riskier to invest in conflict zones.

You have said that “in places like Yemen and Syria, which have millions of people who need a safer life, more food, and better access to health care” people’s basic needs remain unfulfilled. Why is this?

I am convinced that if people work, provide for their families, have access to education and healthcare, most will not fight. Yet what we see in the region is that these basic have often not been met. After 10 years of conflict the level of violence has probably decreased a bit, but the reasons why people fought in Iraq or Syria have not been addressed. If you look at the health system and the provision of water or electricity, it collapsed in these countries. The level of violence may have decreased, but the individual experience of people has never been as dramatic as today.  If you look at Syria, 90 per cent of the population live below poverty line. Ten years ago Syria was, in terms of development and economy, one of the more advanced countries in the region. Security is important, but if individuals don’t feel the difference, there is a problem. This is why we always ask states that have an interest in these countries not to abandon them but to continue investing and making sure people’s minimum needs are met. If we forget about people, they will find a way to draw our attention, and that may be unpleasant.

How do you deal with the humanitarian consequences of years of conflict in a country like Syria?

Countries that host displaced Syrians need to be supported. It is not just a matter of money. Lebanon, for example, is hosting 1.5 million refugees though its population is just four million.

Many Syrians would love to return, but they need services, security, and they need to rebuild their houses. This means a lot of investment is needed to stabilise and rehabilitate and, at a later stage, rebuild.

If you want people to go back, then you need to build the conditions that can allow them to return. If, for political reasons, there is no will for rehabilitation and reconstruction, it is unlikely that people will return to destroyed houses in areas where there are no basic services. ICRC can do its bit as far as maintaining infrastructure is concerned, but we cannot replace the political mechanism.

How are you coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, and what efforts are you making to ensure vaccines reach vulnerable populations?

If you ask in the streets of Aden or Sanaa what the biggest threats are that people face no one will mention Covid. While it is important to focus on the impacts of the pandemic, we should not forget that for the poorest people providing food for their families is a greater challenge. At the beginning of the pandemic the guidelines were: wash your hands, stay at home, socially distance. But in a detention camp in Iraq, among the displaced in Syria, if you are in Yemen or in a poor neighbourhood of Tripoli in Libya, people will tell you there is not enough water. They will say, you want me to socially distance, then tell me how. Yes, this pandemic is very important, but the people issuing instructions on how to deal with it need to take account of the living conditions of the most vulnerable groups.

Of course, we need to do more to make sure the vaccine reaches the poorest places. But people also do not trust the vaccine. We need to build their trust.

How can you cooperate with regional organisations in Yemen to ease people’s suffering?

The situation in Yemen is dramatic. People will need assistance and support for many years to come. The conflict we see today is just one aspect of Yemen’s vulnerability as a country. In Yemen there are also floods, low rainfall, the level of water decreasing, a mix of heat and humidity that make some areas difficult to live in, there is under investment and the economy is almost non-existent. We need to urgently stop the conflict because there are so many other issues to address.

The ICRC cannot solve conflicts. To do so requires political will. Our job is to work on the frontline and help the displaced and wounded. We do that with the Yemeni Red Crescent. We have surgical teams and provide medical supplies. We offer an emergency response. Often people are displaced multiple times.  

Alongside providing emergency services, we try to maintain health and water systems. We have active in Yemen for more than 50 years. There are long-term issues that need to be addressed. One thing we are doing is helping people to be autonomous, and provide for their families. Rather than giving a bottle water to everyone, we prefer to work on improving the water supply network.

In Yemen, we also have an important role in detention centres. We organised the release of more than 1,000 detainees a year and a half ago.

As an organisation, we try to build a relationship with all parties in a conflict and discuss any miscarriage of the law in confidentiality, away from the attention of the media and public pressure.

What is the ICRC doing to ease the suffering of people in the Palestinian territories?

We are in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. During the last escalation in Gaza, we were the only organisation active during the conflict. We try to be prepared for such events, even if in reality you are never ready because the scale of violence is such that it is hard to predict the consequences. The last escalation affected everybody.

The centre of gravity was Gaza, but violence was taking place all over. I think if you want to summarise the Palestinian crisis it is an issue of hope. It is an open-ended occupation with no end in sight. It leads back to the same point. Where are the politicians? What are they doing? You cannot escape the fact you have to negotiate, so when is that going to happen? How many times are we going to rebuild Gaza?

Everybody focuses on humanitarian action, but it cannot substitute for politics. Political solutions are needed.

What about Iraq? You are going to open a rehabilitation centre there…

Yes, and I am very happy about that. When the guns stop we have to deal with the consequences of the violence. Mines, for instance, pose a threat for decades after conflict has ended.

In Iraq, a huge number of people need physical rehabilitation. We have built a large centre in Irbil from scratch which will not only treat people but provide training in rehabilitation techniques.

Lebanon is facing an economic crisis that is compounding the country’s difficult humanitarian problems. What is the ICRC doing to ease the situation?

We were present in Lebanon before the 1975 Civil War. Hundreds of ICRC staff work there, and we have a long-standing relationship with the Lebanese Red Cross.

The level of poverty is huge. When we started working in Lebanon’s largest public university hospital five or six years ago the majority of patients were Syrians or other impoverished migrants. Two years ago, Lebanese patients started coming. The level of poverty among Lebanese is skyrocketing.

The situation needs a massive response, led by states or the international community. The needs are so great individual response will not work. There is no electricity. The water network desperately needs stabilising.

People in the region are the best capital you can have, and with the right support people can do great things for the region.  Although we are an international organisation, most of our staff are local nationals. The majority of staff in our Egypt office are Egyptians. In Syria, the majority are Syrians. They need to be given space to work.

What about your plans for Libya?

Libya has been in violence for more than a decade. Is there a credible political process or not?

The impact on Libyans has been devastating. It is compounded by the migration crisis, people passing through Libya to Europe. Conflict and migration, it is really appalling. Elections have not taken place yet, though they are the only option to escape the fighting.

Libya has everything — resources, people — to be a successful country, but you need to put an end to the violence.

Around a million people in Libya receive either food or cash from the ICRC. Covid restrictions, however, are complicating our work. Our most recent focus has been on providing emergency assistance for 30,000 displaced persons. We are also working to stabilise the water system, and support 63 hospitals in Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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