Focusing on prevention work
In the era of COVID-19, the head of Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Julien Lerisson, converses with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the ICRC’s recent effort to help curb the devastation of the virus, on the history of the organization, how it has affected its operation and on some of the efforts in the Somali region where ICRC returned two years ago after more than a decade of absence. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The Red Cross has been in Ethiopia for eon. Share with me the highlights of its work?
Julien Lerisson: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been in Ethiopia for more than 40 years, focusing on protecting and assisting the most vulnerable people affected by armed conflict and violence. It mostly visited prisons, ensuring that detention conditions and treatment of detainees were in line with international standards. In that regard, it maintained a permanent bilateral and confidential dialogue with the detaining authorities before, during and after those visits.
Also, since its arrival in Ethiopia, the ICRC has supported the establishment of quality physical rehabilitation services for people with disabilities. It is the main provider of the technology used for assisting devices in Ethiopia (i.e polypropylene) and today still supports 10 physical rehabilitation centers in the country. Last but not least, it has always been working in close collaboration and coordination with its main national partner: the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS).
What makes it unique, perhaps different compared to the others who are fixtures in the narrative of Ethiopia?
The uniqueness of the ICRC lies in its history, mandate and activities. The ICRC is at the origin of the Red Cross and Red Cross Movement, created more than 150 years ago and made of the ICRC, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and each and every National Society (i.e the Ethiopian Red Cross Society here in Ethiopia).
It is guided by seven core principles amongst which three are very dear to the ICRC: Neutrality (we don’t take side in conflict), Independence (we don’t receive instructions/agenda from the States and we are not an intergovernmental organization) and Impartiality (we protect and assist people solely based on their needs, no matter their religion, ethnic origin, culture, nationality, etc.). We are an hybrid organization in the sense that we are not an NGO but neither are we an Intergovernmental organization. We received our mandate from the community of States as enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions to protect and assist the most vulnerable people affected by conflict and violence.
In Ethiopia, we were most active during the fall of the Derg, then the Ethio-Eritrean War, and finally wherever pockets of conflict or violence erupted due to confrontations between some armed groups and the security forces. One of our main activities has always been and still is to engage in a bilateral confidential dialogue with weapon bearers on the respect of International Humanitarian Law (IHL, a.k.a. the Laws of War).
What is some of the efforts of the organization, as Ethiopia in now in the midst of fighting COVID-19?
Regarding the COVID-19, we quickly took actions to protect our staff and beneficiaries/interlocutors, as well as adapting our existing programs and starting new ones specifically dedicated to COVID-19. For example, we’ve already approached the Federal Prison Administration as well as the regional ones, and delivered Infection Prevention and Control equipment and measures reaching out more than 30 prisons, and 40,000 detainees. We are now supporting them to establish isolation cells/areas inside the prisons in case suspected cases are identified. Similarly, upon request of our Ethiopian Red Cross partner, we’ve handed over 2,500 essential items kits composed of bed mattresses, bed sheets, blankets, hand-washing stations, hand sanitizers etc. for the established COVID-19 Treatment centers in Addis Ababa and the regions. 500 kits were already delivered to Addis Ababa, and the 2,000 remaining are now on their way to the various concerned regions.
We’ve also engaged with the Police and Army in terms of specific Standard Operating Procedures in the fight of COVID-19 and at a time of State of Emergency. This is a dialogue we value as security forces are front line in the fight against the pandemic. They need to protect and serve the population, without unduly exposing themselves or potentially spreading the virus. This is just to name a few of the activities we’ve developed specifically linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has the virus affected the activities of the organization?
We had to very quickly adapt our operations and modus operandi, ensuring the necessary duty of care for our staff and the communities we are here to serve. So we’ve secured some masks, gloves stocks early in the crisis, and made our own hand sanitizers following the WHO recommendations. Implementing social distancing measures, adapting the number of passengers in the Land Cruiser, allowing staff to work from home, cancelling planned meetings and gatherings, re-arranging the training or Training of Trainers we had planned with the Army, the Ministry of Health (MoH) staff, the Police to ensure social distancing and compliance with the State of Emergency regulations, are just some of the examples I can give you.
I notice ICRC recently donated scarce and needed medical equipment to Ethiopia. Tell me about that?
As mentioned above, we did not donate medical items as such but essential items for treatment and isolation centers. We focus on the prevention work, raising awareness among communities, engaging with influencers, tribal and religious leaders, elders, and heads of communities to pass on key messages. We are supporting few primary health care centers in remote areas at the border of Oromia and Somali regional states and provided them with the necessary protective equipment, but we don’t have the capacity nor the expertise to engage into treatment of COVID-19 cases, this lies with the Ministry of Health and Ethiopian Public Health Institute, with whom we are in daily contact.
Last year, ICRC began to distribute essential supplies to the Somali region of Ethiopia. How has that been like so far?
Our return to Somali Regional State in December 2018 was a very important moment for our organization. We were absent for 12 years and very happy to be back. We’ve engaged with the regional and local authorities and try to focus on areas where we can be impactful and make a difference. Hence, we’ve focused at the border of Oromia and Somali Regional State to assist the people displaced and communities affected by the conflict at the border of the two regions in 2018. Agricultural seeds and tools, livestock vaccination campaign, rehabilitation of water wells, water points, and support to primary health care centers are some of the activities we’ve deployed there.
We’ve also refurbished the Physical Rehabilitation Center in Jijiga, offering services for people with disability in Somali Regional state for the first time, this service did not exist in the past. We are also supporting the detaining and prison authorities there, visiting detention places, discussing with Police, the Army and others. We are also present in Moyale and working on a massive water scheme to improve water availability and distribution in Moyale for both Oromo and Somali communities.