Watch: "Humanitarian Action Must be Independent of Politics"

In conversation with Boris Michel, regional director for Asia Pacific at the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the organisation's work, the Syrian civil war, the Rohingya crisis, and the way forward for humanitarian and transnational organisations.

We’re here with Boris Michel, Regional Director for Asia-Pacific at the International Committee of Red Cross. Thank you for joining us, Boris.

You were previously the head of delegation in Syria and that’s really where I want to start today. What can you tell us about the current ceasefire in Syria that has been brokered between the government and Russia and Turkey and Iran?

Thank you so much for the invitation. It’s always a pleasure to be invited. First and foremost, I would like to clarify that I was head of delegation in Syria in 2014 and as you know, the situation has evolved drastically since then and different times, different moments, different situations.

But to answer your question, the ceasefire in Syria is holding but is fragile and it’s not holding everywhere. From latest information, it appears that in many parts of the country—in the north, in the south, in the east—there is still an outbreak of fighting, there is still fighting going on, and there is still civilian population that is affected by the ongoing fighting so truce or ceasefire, yes, but the situation is fragile.

What is important, in any case, is that whether there is a ceasefire or not humanitarian actors should be given access to those people in need, and the ICRC is committed to negotiate its own security and its own access independently from any holding ceasefire in order to do its best to respond to the needs of the civilians.  

Now I understand it’s fragile but has it made it easier for humanitarian organisations like ICRC to do—

I will say that it made it easier because the problem, at times, in Syria is that the humanitarian action and response has been very much politicised. In the sense that parties to the conflict have put a condition for holding ceasefire so that humanitarian assistance can be delivered, and unfortunately ceasefires were not respected most of the time which hindered in turn, the humanitarian response. So the key message here is leave the humanitarian response independent from political issues and negotiations.  

Can we talk specifically about the chemical attacks that happened in Syria? And I just want to understand how a humanitarian organisation such as the ICRC would respond in a situation like that.

I don’t want to confirm or deny the occurrence of such situations because it was very much publicised and we did not have on-the-spot first hand evidence that this happened. But if, and should it happen, ICRC has some know-how and some capacity to respond to the humanitarian consequences of such type of attacks and that is basically first of all protecting our own staff against such occurrences but also providing the most efficient medical response to that.  

Since the liberation of Aleppo, the Russian Defence Ministry has said that there hasn’t been much assistance from international agencies. What do you have to say in response to that?

First of all, I can only speak on behalf of the ICRC and I don’t want to tell which organisation did what. I can speak for ourselves. What I can tell you is that since the very beginning of the conflict, and during all this peak of crisis around Aleppo, which was recent, ICRC was always present in all parts of the city.

ICRC was crossing the lines in order to get access to water stations in order to make sure that two or three million population of the city could be supplied with clean water. And this took a lot of energy for the ICRC; first of all, to negotiate access and security with the many groups that were in the eastern part of the city and make sure that they accepted us so that we fixed the water systems and that we avoid a big catastrophe with regard to lack of water. And this is really one of the main achievements we have done during the whole crisis.

Right now, it is important to say that ICRC and the Red Crescent Society of Syria were key and instrumental in evacuating more than 30,00 civilians from the eastern part of the city. Mostly women, elderly people, wounded children—they were brought under our auspices to safe havens, they were taken care of, given healthcare, given water [and] blankets and medical treatment. Some of them have already come back and we have also arranged for accommodation for those who came back and we are also taking care of all those who have been temporarily or displaced in the long term because their basic needs are huge, their houses are destroyed and they need everything. This is what ICRC has been doing alongside the Syrian Red Crescent Society.  

I just want to go back to what you said earlier about working in a conflict zone where a lot of humanitarian aide—giving access to it comes with clauses, political clauses. The war in Syria has been going on for six years now. Has it been entirely difficult to work with so many opposing actors? Because besides the government there is also the rebel factions and the other groups that are fighting in Syria.

Do you have to—besides negotiating with the government, you’re also talking to other groups—so how difficult has it been in Syria as compared to perhaps other areas where you have dealt with conflict?

To answer this question there is one key. I think it is important for all stakeholders, be they state government or non-state actors to acknowledge the idea that having a neutral, independent, impartial humanitarian responder is the only solution to the humanitarian problems. It is very important that all parties can be talked to. It is important that we are in a position to engage in dialogue with all of them because they have to know about their obligations, they have to know about international humanitarian law, they have to learn about the respect for civilians and detainees. And if there is nobody to teach them about this and remind them about these obligations then we face dire humanitarian consequences.

So yes, for us, engaging with all these actors is key and sometimes it’s very complicated because when you have a multiplication of actors, getting an engaging with each and everyone of them is nearly impossible. And this in turn, it is true, sometimes delays our capacity to operate safely, to receive security guarantees and unfortunately to deliver badly needed humanitarian assistance.

Let’s talk about the prevalence of fake news and we have seen lot of debunking reports of things that happened in Syria, the rescue operations have been staged, photographs have been staged. Does this make it more difficult for humanitarian organisation to do your work knowing that there is so many eyes on you around the world. How has that impacted the work?

So what we have to know is that the role of media is important in covering war situation. I think the public should know what is going on but objectively. I think when the humanitarian situation is dire and when there is tremendous need for assistance to be delivered, it is important that major reports about it and facilitating in a nice way the role of the work of humanitarian workers. Now it’s true that in many conflicts each side or many side of conflict have their own narrative and tendency is there to have your narrative and to either exaggerate or downplay the real and objective situation on field. When it is the case and when our work as humanitarian workers is in danger because of this type of manipulations we will deal bilaterally with media making them aware of the risks and consequences of such a behaviour and usually we find in agreement that it is important that major report objectively and facilitate the role of humanitarian and if possible neutral intermediaries and impartial response to make the life of people easy.

These are expectations you can have of conventional media but when you are talking of social media we have seen a lot of pole in Syria have used Twitter, you know to share their stories, to share videos so there have been lot of conflicting narratives on social media and its 24 hours, its constant. Has that made particularly made it difficult on ground for aid workers?

It depends, sometimes it made it even easier for us because crowd sourcing. When the people, victims of conflict themselves are able to tell about the situation it gives us an indication about what is actually going on, so we can also rely on the information given by the victims of the conflict and this is the tendency we try also to develop through innovation to have a better sense of what’s going on especially when access is difficult. I think we have to trust the victims of the conflict, people when they talk about their needs most of the times are very honest. For sure there is always a risk of manipulation but here our sense of realities in the field allow us to understand what is wrong, what might be right and allows us to better prepare and engage with the beneficiaries. So sometime the help is useful and social media can play a positive role. Another example I would like to give you is the use of social media to give information to the beneficiaries about the services we deliver, for example in Allepo we had a application where we could inform the citizen population about all the wells and pumps we had installed across the city that they could go and have fresh and clean water and because otherwise they wouldn’t know…

…They wouldn’t know it’s there. Okay so social media a good thing then. Now let’s talk about the Asia-pacific region. What can you tell us about the ICRC’s work in the region and the challenges across countries here?

First of all Asia-pacific for ICRC is you can imagine the huge region. We talk about 14 ICRC delegations for this region and its range is from Afghanistan to South East Asia, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific. It’s a big geographical area and it is a challenging one because as you know Asia is the continent of the future so many different perspective but for us as humanitarian actor, each mission is about assisting and protecting victims of conflicts and violence and promoting international humanitarian growth. It’s quite challenging. So if I  may name a few challenges, the first one I would say is the notion of acceptance and understanding of what the issue mission is about, we have many countries that are still at war and there is still a lot of conflicts going on in Myanmar, Afghanistan, in Philippines and other situations, other countries where violence is taking place we have a to explain what our  mission mandate is  and we have accepted as such, our services should be understood and we also have to operate with minimum security guarantees and acceptance all over the continent.

The second challenge is about engaging with the state and the non state actors, it’s a challenge because in Asia we have states who have strong sense of sovereignty so sometimes having an international, or perceived international actor coming in is something to be discussed and understood and on the other hand they have lot of non state actors groups existing and active in the region with different profiles and different activities, there is also a tendency to violent extremism, with all kinds of different features and as said before it is important that we able also to engage with them in order to share the minimum knowledge about humanitarian principals and knowledge about international humanitarian law, that’s not always easy.

The third challenge is about the promotion of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principals, it’s very important that all actors know about it, not only the state and non state but all those who carry weapons, its important that military, the police know about it and civil society and to do so we have to engage in lot of humanitarian diplomacy activities and that’s for example the reason why I am here in India these days attending the Raisina dialogue because this is the platform where political decider are, and this is the platform where we can carry and present humanitarians issues of the day. Challenging for us is the protection of civilian population across the board. Protection is manifold, it’s about respecting civilian in the conflict but it’s also caring about people who are missing after conflict, making sure that response are give to the families in order to foster and facilitate reconciliation later on. Protecting is about making sure that all the people on the move who are displaced by conflict, by violence, internally displaced people, refuges, migrants on the move benefit from minimum of protection and human dignity. Some of them are being detained, some of them are missing, are exploited on their way. It is important that we can together with national societies, with countries have positive impact to better protect them. And it’s also about family links, the movements of people have always as a consequence that you need to know where friends, family, your son, you beloved ones are and we can support in that field. And finally I think a very important find for us is the people who are detained for all kind of different reasons, I think its an issue in Asia with regard to overcrowding in general condition of detention and our dialogue with the penitentiary administration is key so people benefit from decent humane conditions in detention. I could talk more and more about the challenges. I will mention an additional one, maybe healthcare in general. In conflicts people need healthcare, war wounded soldiers need healthcare and ICRC in Afghanistan for example is delivering full branch of healthcare from first aid to transfer, safe access to health facilities, surgical and orthopedic rehabilitation and key message is to have medical mission protected. Too many hospitals have been destroyed, too many health workers have been attacked, assaulted and this is really something that is something that is part of international humanitarian love. The key notion protects the medical mission.

Now, you have brought up working with detainees, let’s talk about Kashmir. I know the ICRC works with detainees in Kashmir. Can you tell me, we had unrest in the state last summer. Can you tell me a bit about the work ICRC did in the aftermath or during that in the state and then perhaps in general about what else you do in our country?

What I can tell you is that the ICRC is present in Jammu and Kashmir since 1992 and is working within the frame of memorandum of understanding that was signed with minister of external affairs and this MoU is about the work and the visits of the ICRC in deep tension places, visits whose objective it to monitor the material condition of detention of detainees, to engage in dialogue with detaining authorities in place, there are aspects to work, to make sure that families of detainees receive news about their relatives. That basically the work we do in Jammu and Kashmir

I want to talk about the crisis in Myanmar right now with Rohingya people. We have seen increased violence against the community with a lot of them leaving the state and moving to Bangladesh, India, elsewhere. How is ICRC working with this situation right now?

It’s a good question and it involves different delegations of ICRC. You probably as you know we have a delegation in Myanmar where we deal with the consequences of long long lasting conflict there especially in the eastern part of country but we deal also with the situation of violence that is prevailing in Rakhine particularly, a situation which is polarised and delicate to operate. On the other hand we also have delegation in Bangladesh and we have colleagues working also in Cox’s Bazar area trying to provide assistance in particular to the people, to the Muslim communities from or in Rakhine who have crossed the border and try to supply them very with basic assistance in terms of medical response. We have opened mobile clinics in coordination with the government of Bangladesh, their authorisation we are present there. In Myanmar also we have physical presence and offices in Rakhine, in Sittwe, in Maungdaw and we do whatever we can to reach out and to provide medical assistance, safe access to Muslim communities in Rakhine but also to the local population so that we keep a balanced response to the needs of everybody in the region and also to make our presence and response acceptable and understood.

I’d like to talk about the greater challenges facing ICRC and other humanitarian organisation globally, yesterday there was an attack in Nigeria on a refugee camp in which 52 people were killed including six aid workers and I believe some were some were ICRC aid workers too. What I want to know is in a situation like this where you take aid and volunteers into conflict zone and areas of violence and when things like this happen, how do you motivate people to continue working in situations like this?

First of all, the first thing I would like to say it’s always very sad and it always a tragedy to have people of goodwill, volunteers and aid workers either killed or kidnapped in the course of action. No later than last Sunday, luckily ICRC was abled to have its collaborator released from captivity in Afghanistan after one long month of discussion and we have obtained his unconditional release because everybody in the area had realised that having the ICRC operating is a useful thing. So it’s always a tragedy to loose colleagues in course of action. You know humanitarian response is also a question of motivation and personal move. If you feel like you want to make yourself useful and help your human colleagues and friends and neighbours, you will engage, you will commit and there is a part of risk you have to accept. ICRC is training all its new recruits, we have training programmes so that everybody has the best knowledge of how to behave, which rules and principals to stick firmly to. Because it also question of perception, of behaviour…

Adapting to the war you are…

Exactly. But I think all aid workers know when they go, know about the risk they take and we as responsible employees, we give the best of training we take all guarantees possible when we operate before we sending our delegates in risky areas. It is important that we go back to this notion acceptance, explanation who we are and receiving security guarantees before operating, which is a challenge.

What about the challenges presented by climate change? How is that impacting the work ICRC does because its not a conventional conflict but its creating a lot, well a lot of conflict. A lot of people do not believe in it or are not willing to see the impact of it. Has this affected ICRC’s working any way or how do plan to take this forward in the years ahead?

Climate change is a reality and now we will have to live with it. I would say that it actually affects Asia and Pacific. Climate change will affect tsunami, typhoons will occur more and more regularly and this will in turn revoke movement of populations fighting for resources. It’s going to affect general living conditions, you will have massive movement of population, massive causalities, massive displacement and really difficult situation. So how does it affect us? As you know ICRC is a part of the movement of Red Cross and red crescent societies and within this movement with federation of red cross and red crescent societies whose mandate is to deal and respond to natural disasters. So together with the federation of all national societies we are working hard on preventive measure, capacity building, emergency preparedness and response. Not only with the governments but also increasingly with the armies of different countries in Asia, because armies also are one of the main responders in terms of natural disasters so it take a lot of new coordination between civil and military operations and this is definitely something we are preparing on working on so that we don’t blur the line between humanitarian response and response by military and states who must also take responsibility for responding, we are in support of that.

Would you say that it’s easier or rather more difficult to get people to work with you related to climate change. Is there any preventive measure or are you just trying to prepare people for the situations?

I think we have to prepare collectively of occurrence of consequence so climate change and yes we will have to face it at different levels so we have to be ready to respond to all kind of emergencies linked to water, linked to diseases, linked to missing people, handling death bodies, evacuating areas, organising reception of number of thousands of people, making sure evacuation plans are ready and all this should be coordinated with governments who are responsible for that, with national societies who come I support to that

We have seen recent rise in anxieties towards refuges given the conflict in the Middle East.

How are humanitarian organisations responding to that because people have to be moved out of conflict area they have to be moved to safe spaces and a lot of times that involves moving them to other countries. We have a seen a massive trend in Europe of anti-refugee anti-migrant protests. How is this impacting the work you do? Or is the ICRC and other humanitarian organisations that you know of working with people in Europe to ease migrants into society?

It’s a very complex issue in question. You know that 65 million people worldwide are displaced because of violence, because of conflict and in Asia or in the Middle East, many people leave Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq because simply they don’t feel safe at home anymore. The root cause displacements are violations of international humanitarian law, no respect for civilians, protracted conflict, when this conflict lasts forever, for decades people lose hope and when they lose hope the only solution they have and also because they have no security, they move. And they move first of all in close proximity of their homes and this is a burden for neighbourhood and when there is no proper response to their displacement and when they are not well taken care of they will try to go further and try their chance elsewhere, in places where officially lifestyle is better. That’s the reason why many people arrived in Europe and it’s true that massive movements of population are challenging the stability, you have to open up, you have to become generous, you have to integrate people and probably some parts of the world were not ready for it. Now I think what is imp is that we have to work on the root cause of displacement. It’s important that we remind all political deciders, all people take decisions that it is important first of all to respect people, civilians at home and as much as a possible that it is necessary to stablise and to solve the conflicts if you want to see this phenomenon reduce and if you want to be able to bring and let the people com back home with a choice and with dignity, with security so that they can enjoy decent conditions of life.

So yes it’s a challenge, we really try to accompany the migrants, displaced refuges as much as we can but obviously its important to stabilise the conflict so that people can go back home.

I do have one final question, with Donald Trump about to become the new US president and he has repeatedly said that he does not believe trans-national organisations like the UN and other humanitarian organisations have served their purpose. The US has been a big supporter of humanitarian aid and humanitarian action… is ICRC and do you think the humanitarian community is preparing for a big challenge with Trump as president?

I will speak for ICRC; ICRC is an organisation that has a good reputation and that has received advantage from the international community. Our role is important and I am confident that all governments have so far been financing the ICRC because it is useful, because it is necessary will keep financing its endeavours, I am confident that we will keep receiving the financial support we deserve.

Thank you Boris for you time and speaking to us. We were speaking to Boris Michele of International Committee of Red Cross. Thank you once again.