Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC
A week ago, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer visited Addis Ababa and talked to Officials of the federal government on ways of facilitating humanitarian operations and addressing the crisis in Ethiopia’s northern region.
Peter Maurer has been President of the ICRC since 2012. In 2004, Maurer was appointed ambassador and permanent representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York.
Sisay Sahlu of The Reporter spoke to the President on ICRC’s aid operations of the past, present and its future plan. The war in the north was a major point of discussion. Excerpts:
The Reporter: What was the purpose of your travel to Ethiopia? Who did you speak to once you got here?
Let me just start by recognizing that Ethiopia today is really amongst the top five concerns of the President of RC in the world. Apart from the conflict in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sahel and Lake Chad basins, Ethiopia is definitely an operation on which I have focused since the developments of the last year in particular.
We have considerably increased our activity in this country. We were a very small delegation here with USD 10-12 million in budget, and today, we are running on an expected budget of USD 87 million for next year.
So, within 18 months, we have increased from 12 to 87 million and maybe from 30-40 staff to more than 500 staff. This gives you just a couple of numbers to illustrate our concern for the people affected by war and violence in the country has considerably increased. The ICRC has always remained an organization concerned about the whole of the country. At the present moment, of course, there is a special focus on mounting and increasing our operation in the North in particular in Tigray, Amhara and Afar, and even in neighboring regions.
ICRC has increased operations in those areas but has not neglected other parts of the country. Now, when I look at the challenges for our operation, it is obvious that we are confronted with hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
We are confronted with the challenge of access to health services; we are challenged by the fact that so many people do not get enough food. Not only because it may not be available, but because food prices are rising and the capacity to pay is not increasing.
And of course, we are also concerned that because of the war, livelihood activities, farming and supplying the population with the right amount of food in calories, has been disrupted.
And that is the overview of the conversation I had with the Ethiopian government, in particular, with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Demeke Mekonnen.
I think when we grow our operation, there are a couple of immediate concerns. We lack cash and fuel. And we need the support of the Authorities in logistics. All these areas were part of our conversation.
And I must say I was very encouraged by the Deputy Prime Minister’s reaction first because of the appreciation to the very specific role of the Red Cross, and ICRC. Secondly, because he recognizes the importance of increasing our operation, and thirdly, he recognizes that we have to work very closely together and the authorities also have to facilitate our work so that we can increase and respond in a more meaningful way.
I think we are at a critical moment where we have seen needs growing fast. We need to be able to scale and increase our operation and we need to work with all sides in order to be able to do that.
The war in northern Ethiopia has continued for a year now. How much humanitarian aid has the ICRC provided to these conflict ravaged areas so far?
I must say we have been providing medical services and food. We have been able to support hundreds of thousands of people. But it is obvious that we have been able to provide those key areas in Medical Services, food and water to those displaced.
We have offered to tens of thousands support for their livelihood activities, help them with their animals, in basic materials to go back to the fields and we have supported hospitals. We have also continued to visit the detainees in the country, trying to ensure that those who have been detained, particularly in the context of the conflict, have food and health services as well.
So, it’s a big operation given the challenges of the telecommunications sector. The ICRC has also managed to liaise with families to setup telephone calls to setup communications from one side to the other family.
So, these are some of the key activities in which the ICRC has been involved over the last 12 months.
How worrying is the situation you are hearing in Ethiopia?
We are always worried as long as we don’t have peace. And therefore, we are always worried that the conflict at the present moment has not come to an end yet and that there is no ceasefire, which we would appreciate.
But I am also worried when I listen to my colleagues on the ground that the needs of the people are deepening. That almost on a daily basis, people are displaced as new features of violence emerge.
And the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, when I spoke to him, recognized that the situation is very unstable and he asked us to do more, which is also an indication that he is concerned about where the country is going. So, because the ICRC works on humanitarian response, we have to be worried and we have to plan for more needs to come.
If we don’t need to respond, that’s all for the better. But in terms of our planning, we are not particularly optimistic that next year, we will certainly go back to being a small delegation. We will most likely see this conflict continue.
We are talking about a long-term protracted conflict. And therefore, we will see more needs. And even if the conflict stops tomorrow, we still would have hundreds of thousands of people displaced. We would have to support them in their returns. We would have to deal with the other complexities in the country; the conundrum of poverty, climate change, COVID-19, the economic impact, and the long-term impact of the conflict.
So, when I put all this together, I’m sorry to say but my concerns are considerable. But, we are also very much committed to increasing our response and expand our work and I hope that we can do that with the support of all sides in the conflict.
Do you have a plan to talk to the TPLF for a better humanitarian coordination?
Well not at the present moment immediately, as we speak. This visit was clearly designed to try and facilitate our build-up of our operation here in Addis. But I’m very much interested and I mentioned to the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, but I would like to come back and see the reality on the ground may be in the first month of next year.
Individuals and government officials accused International Aid Agencies of failing to provide humanitarian aid in Amhara and Afar regional states although they have offered support to Tigray region. What is your take on this point?
Well I think we should take it seriously when a population expresses themselves and want to be helped and this is one of the reasons why ICRC has tried to respond and not be active exclusively in Tigray.
As I mentioned before, we have been engaging in Amhara and Afar regions and we are looking at Gondar and other parts of the country. We have opened offices and plan to open further offices in the country, wherever they are needed. So there is no question with regards to the Red Cross and ICRC, we are taking very seriously, the signals of alarm that are coming from communities around the country that tell us that they need support.
And I think we should take these signals very seriously and try to plan and then respond to those signals. There is nothing worse than a humanitarian operation, which starts to be selective and services only one side of a conflict neglecting the others. This is the basis of every humanitarian work. We need to be sure that we do not further accentuate the conflict by bias.
Therefore, we are always committed. We may not always be able to reach everybody all the time, but we are certainly committed to a neutral and impartial humanitarian work to send and prioritize our activities, where the biggest needs are required.
Local aid officials from Wollo Informed The Reporter that no aid or humanitarian organization has approached the people for help and that the public’s uproar has continued.
As I mentioned before, while we are committed to reach all people, we cannot always guarantee that we are able to reach everybody. At the present moment, our operation overall is always challenged by the lack of fuel, cash, difficult possibilities to employ and pay people.
So given the fast spread of the conflict, I do acknowledge that there are parts we have not yet addressed, but this does not mean that we do not want to be there and it does not mean that we focus exclusively on one side.
The federal government recently expelled some UN staff accused of inappropriate involvement and siphoning aid for rebel groups. How has the impartiality of ICRC staff been from such allegations?
Well, I hope that by what we are doing, we are showing all sides in the conflict that we are a credible, neutral and impartial actor. And as we speak, I am quite positive that the ICRC has managed to explain where we are at the present moment in the north and in the neighboring regions, with the government here in Addis.
We have been able to explain how we work, what we do and to work in transparency and cooperation with the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, which is our foremost partner. And I have the impression that our efforts for neutrality and impartiality have paid-off. We can never exclude, when you work in a country, that there will be misunderstandings and difficulties, and there are strong opinions on one side or the other.
It is always difficult to remain neutral but I think we made a credible effort that the parties to the conflict in Ethiopia have up until now appreciated the work we are doing.
What is your advice on the politically motivated involvement of aid or humanitarian agencies?
Well, it is not up to me to make recommendations for such a political engagement. I think what we try to do is to create a neutral and impartial humanitarian space, recognizing that violence and conflict is displacing a lot of people, causing a lot of harm and that organizations, like the Red Cross must have access in order to support and assist civilian populations. And I think that’s what we try to do and what we are doing. As to political agreement, I can only say what I say from Afghanistan to Latin America: We need political agreements to get out of conflict. Humanitarian organizations cannot solve this conflict. We can mitigate the impact of the conflict, but the resolution of the conflict is negotiation and it is up to the political actors to negotiate, we cannot.