Earlier this month, Laurent DuPasquier, a 38-year-old Swiss national, was killed when a cluster bomb landed near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the Ukranian town of Donetsk. DuPasquier had been working for the Geneva-based humanitarian organization for more than five years in Pakistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt and Papua New Guinea. For ICRC Director of Operations, Dominik Stillhart, his death, the result of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, was “unacceptable” and in complete “violation of international humanitarian law.”
What the incident highlights is the increasing danger for aid workers in war zones. According to the 2014 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, last year saw a dramatic rise in crises across the globe with 51.2 million people displaced by conflict and other disasters, the highest since the end of World War II. It has also meant a sharp leap in funds needed: $22 billion in 2013 as opposed to $17.3 billion in 2012.
The killing further demonstrates a growing disregard by governments, insurgent groups and criminal gangs for the world’s quarter of a million aid workers. Until the 1990s, many belligerents liked to have humanitarians and journalists operating on ‘their’ respective sides. Today, it is more convenient to kill or kidnap them. For Ewan Watson, a British ICRC spokesman in Geneva, “it’s been a tough year with three colleagues killed.”
The ICRC is not necessarily witnessing more humanitarian casualties. But new trends are emerging, notably a growing politicization of conflicts coupled with extremism, where international humanitarian law is not respected. “This is severely hampering our access to people in need,” said Watson.
As a private Swiss organization mandated by the international community to safeguard the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC has maintained a unique role dating back to its founding in 1864. ICRC President Peter Maurer considers this a crucial part of International Geneva’s efforts to promote “a more coherent response to global challenges.” While most conflicts have dominated the ICRC’s agenda for decades, he said, humanitarian action was initially developed to respond to “a temporary crisis.” Now, it is about dealing with “poverty, armed conflict, inter-communal violence and crime undermining fragile states and societies.”
“We consider the Geneva Conventions to be humanity’s last stand, but we have to find a balance, which does not always run in our favour,” said Watson. “Our job is to protect and assist victims of conflict. We are constantly seeking dialogue with different armed groups, convincing them to give us access.” Unlike Médecins sans Frontières, which embraces both a “shouting” and medical assistance role, ICRC adopts a more “softly, softly” approach. “We consider our uniqueness essential to operating successfully. This means remaining discreet so that people know we can be trusted.”
For a writer who has encountered its teams while covering wars from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, the ICRC has almost always come across as exceptional. Working in dire conditions, its ability often depends on the ground savvy of its delegates, some of whom are refreshingly eccentric. One veteran Swiss always insisted on having a quiet drink at the end of the day in his Kabul garden, oblivious to the bullets lacing the night sky.
The ICRC has 13,000 staff worldwide, including 1,000 delegates, many from other countries. Nevertheless, ICRC remains very much a Swiss Committee headed by a prominent diplomat. Maurer is a former foreign minister. There is also an influential alumni network. “Berne pays heavily for the ICRC, but it definitely gets its money’s worth by cultivating smart Swiss in the field. They’re an incredible asset,” said Urs Boegli, a former ICRC head of media.
Today, however, many remain as part of a growing trend of humanitarian professionalism. “There is a strong sense of identity with the ICRC’s mission and a strong institutional memory,” noted Watson. “This is what makes us essential.”