Oleksii Plotnikov, Ph.D. international judiciary
The Red Cross has a controversial reputation in the Ukrainian public space, mainly due to the scandal over the attempt to open an office in Rostov-on-Don in March 2022. The Minister for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Irina Vereshchuk, called this decision the legalization of the deportation of Ukrainians to the Russian Federation .
The scandal turned out to be so loud that the National Committee of the Red Cross of Ukraine hastened to dissociate itself from the decisions of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) . But recently it turned out that the ICRC is taking part in the procedure for the return of the Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol  and its participation looks like a certain guarantee that they will return alive. So can the Red Cross be considered friend or foe, and what is its overall role in this war?
The Red Cross is a unique phenomenon in world history, and one of the features of this uniqueness is its special structure. The so-called International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement unites about one hundred million people in 192 countries of the world. It includes the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The ICRC is based in Switzerland and works all over the world. It contributes to the development and dissemination of knowledge about international humanitarian law, and also has the right to act as a neutral humanitarian mediator between the parties to any armed conflict. The International Federation coordinates the provision of international humanitarian assistance and cooperates with National Societies in the provision of assistance in natural and man-made disasters, and promotes the development of stable and peaceful societies. Finally, National Red Cross Societies work in individual countries and help governments respond to emergencies. It is the employees and volunteers of National Societies who take on the lion’s share of routine work “on the ground” .
The elements of the International Red Cross Movement are relatively independent. The ICRC has no direct control over the National Societies, and the National Societies are independent of each other and cooperate based on their own discretion. The Ukrainian Red Cross Society, although its activities are regulated by a special law, is still a public organization and legal entity under the laws of Ukraine .
The Russian Red Cross is registered as a public organization and legal entity under the laws of the Russian Federation . Relations between the Ukrainian and Russian organizations are far from rosy. It got to the point that in 2014, representatives of the Russian Red Cross seized the property of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society in the occupied Crimea , and there was no official reaction to such a blatant violation of the principles of the Movement by the ICRC.
It may seem strange that an organization designed to uphold the lofty ideals of human rights and protection so clearly turns a blind eye to violations of its own principles both in 2014 and in 2022. But it should be borne in mind that the ICRC is not a human rights organization, which should raise noise when violations are detected legal or moral standards.
According to the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, its mission is to “prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found, to protect life and health and ensure respect for the human being, in particular in times of armed conflict and other emergencies” . The Movement is based on a number of principles, among which is neutrality. It means that “in order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature” .
From the point of view of the goals of protecting life and health and reducing suffering, the decisions of the ICRC look understandable if not justified. Maintaining a presence in a conflict always requires the consent of its parties. As a result, the Red Cross is often forced to make compromises, ignoring the obvious and even blatant things.
As the newly elected judge of Ukraine at the ECtHR and former President of the European Committee against Torture Mykola Gnatovskyy put it, “The ICRC, with its neutrality and level of attitude towards the parties to the armed conflict, has problems when it comes to interacting with radical evil, as it was during the Holocaust. Neutrality in Europe in the 19th century was much easier than in the 20th century, and even more so in the 21st century” .
The old dilemma of the Red Cross, and other structures and individuals positioning themselves as peacekeepers, moral authorities and mediators standing above the fight, is how far one can go in compromises with evil, and whether such compromises are worth the achieved result. The American researcher D. Forsyth explains this in this way using the example of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, where the ICRC faced similar moral dilemmas.
“An official in a repressive regime, for instance in the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, can offer the ICRC general promises of co-operation and perhaps access to some victims here and there, but can try to prevent the organization from having any serious impact on policies of persecution and abuse. That official will generally be at least temporarily successful, particularly if powerful outside parties do not intervene with force or economic coercion on behalf of humanitarian values or if journalists do not publicize the situation, because the ICRC is committed to discreet and incremental change over time.
This ICRC approach enables a repressive official to stall and continue abusing individuals. The organization will not quickly blow the whistle or declare that there is no co-operation; it is reluctant to reject or give up its access to some victims, and this allows it to be manipulated by inhumane authorities.
The decision to withdraw in protest is almost impossible to sustain if the victims want the ICRC presence to continue. The Mandela axiom of staying on to prevent unspecified and unknowable harm in the future is conducive to the same approach. If the ICRC withdraws with a public denunciation, it loses its great comparative advantage over most other human rights and humanitarian organizations – its in-country presence. If it withdraws in protest, having shot the last arrow in its humanitarian quiver, it is out of the game” .
ICRC officials obviously understand the essence of this game and deliberately play it. There is an exchange of partial legitimization of the actions of the perpetrators for the sake of the presence of the Red Cross with the ability to provide assistance to the victims. The interest of the repressive regime is not to let the ICRC know too much and to limit its access to those in need as much as possible. The interest of the Red Cross, on the contrary, is to legitimize violators as little as possible by their presence, while gaining more opportunities for access and assistance. The actions of the ICRC in the Russian Federation should be viewed from this angle.
Another dilemma that must be taken into account, and which is not often publicly emphasized, is the primacy of safety over efficiency. International organizations working in conflict zones prefer not to risk the life and health of their employees, which is also a factor in limiting their access to victims and events. The absence of missions or individual representatives of the International Committee in the zone of armed conflict is not an accident, but an element of the organization’s policy, because of which it also receives its portion of criticism.
Indicative is the open letter of representatives of Ukrainian civil society to the head of the ICRC, P. Maurer, published on March 24, 2022, in the wake of fresh impressions from his visit to Moscow during the siege of Mariupol. Calling for the Committee to be revitalized on many fronts (in other words, requiring it to do the job for which it is intended), the signatories of the letter state: “We appreciate all the efforts made by the ICRC to date, but we are waiting for official comments from you as to why your mission left Mariupol as soon as the attacks intensified.
The entire Mariupol (450 thousand people) is now taken hostage by the Russian army, the city has been reduced to ashes, people are constantly dying or being taken to Russia without documents. The situation in Mariupol is a combination of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity… We are witnessing that the current evacuation and support initiatives in Mariupol are organized mainly by Ukrainian volunteers and government agencies…
Today, humanitarian convoys heading to cities and towns under siege are accompanied by a representative of the State Emergency Service Ukraine and drivers. According to international standards, there should be ICRC employees, their vehicles, their humanitarian supplies, their flags and symbols that show that this is a humanitarian mission. But we hardly see this in the humanitarian corridors of Ukraine. There is no ICRC in the Mariupol corridors…
In early March, the military administration of the Kyiv region sent a letter to the ICRC with a request to provide various types of assistance. No answers… We tried to establish personal contact, but received nothing more than “you must understand”… The entire evacuation, which is currently taking place in the Kyiv region, is carried out mainly by the Ukrainian side (Ukrainian Red Cross, Ukrainian government officials and volunteers), we do not see anything special from the ICRC…We urge you to focus all your efforts on helping Ukraine, especially Mariupol, which is now the worst place on earth. Every opportunity must be used without a minute of delay” .
The ICRC has not formally responded to these criticisms. On April 30, a representative of the Committee, when visiting Kyiv, complained to journalists that the ICRC could not fully assess the situation in Ukraine due to the lack of staff on the ground, and also noted that in Russia the Committee continues to work through the Moscow office, and the prospects for opening a representative office in Rostov are shady . If the purpose of the previous compromise with evil was to open an office, then this compromise was clearly not reached, and the “repressive official” has won the bargain.
The Committee now has a new chance to prove the need for such compromises. There is little information, but it looks like the participation of the ICRC was an important part of the agreement on the withdrawal of Ukrainian defenders from Azovstal. According to the representative of the organization, the Committee is engaged in “control of the conditions of detention and treatment of prisoners of war, preventing disappearance and maintaining their connection with their families”, and that such registration allows prisoners “to feel protected at least from the risk of disappearing without a trace” .
The registration of Ukrainian prisoners by the Committee indeed looks like a guarantee that Russia will not be able to declare in the future that it is not responsible for the fate of the captured defenders of Mariupol. The involvement of the ICRC here is, in any case, better than its absence. If an appropriate agreement exists and is implemented, then saving the lives of the fighters who defended Azovstal will not look like an excessive price for another compromise.
In turn, Ukrainians should neither be fascinated nor disappointed in the Red Cross. The Ukrainian Red Cross is showing its best side in this conflict. As for the International Committee, one should not see in it an ideal that must necessarily come out on the side of Ukraine. We need a pragmatic view of it as another international instrument that has its advantages, disadvantages and limitations. In some cases, this tool can be effective, and it is better to know how to use it than to demand the impossible.