By Georgia Goddard, BA International Relations & Mala Dutta, MA International Studies & Diplomacy
The birth of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, today the largest humanitarian network in the world, can be traced back to a battlefield in Solferino, Italy, in 1859. It is here that its founder, the Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, saw the horrors of war and recognised the need for a new kind of humanitarian aid, one which held itself to seven values: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. Over decades to come, the ethical and organisational framework of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) became a crucial source of inspiration and guidance for the humanitarian sector. As Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss recount, ‘for many the ICRC’s definition of humanitarianism is the gold standard’. Yet some of these values are more contested than others, especially impartiality and neutrality in the face of war crimes.
The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia provides a contemporary case study. Fighting began in early November 2020 between armed forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TFPL) – which has dominated the political landscape since 1991 but now control Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray – and the new national government led by Abiy Ahmed. In 2019, Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his essential role in ending the 20-year territorial dispute between Ethiopia and neighbouring country Eritrea. Conflict between regions and ethnicities in Ethiopia is not new – many Ethiopian refugees in the UK are Oromos who fled the Tigrayan regime after decades of harsh repression. However, with diplomats in Addis Ababa calling the outbreak of violent fighting a ‘civil war’ and Amnesty International reporting war crimes, the situation has certainly escalated. The ICRC warns that the risk of a humanitarian crisis is high.
The answer to the question posed above is found in the small print: while the ICRC is committed to upholding its core principles of impartiality and neutrality, and thus cannot and will not get involved in the politics of the situation, it will fight for the protection of human rights of all those involved. Indeed, impartiality and neutrality are the exact principles which allow the ICRC to protect these rights in practice. The ICRC’s long standing reputation as a humanitarian aid network that will neither pick a side nor discriminate against anyone has turned the organisation into a player with unique features. The respect shown towards the ICRC is reflected in the stories told in volunteer training sessions in the UK: in Afghanistan, the British Red Cross was allowed to stay at a Taliban compound for the night when no other accommodation could be found.
Over its long history in Tigray, Oromia, Amhara, Benshangul-Gumuz and the Somali Regional State, the ICRC has provided access to water, sanitation, and financial aid, as well as seeds and animal vaccinations. In the recent conflict, the ICRC has activated a family links hotline that Ethiopians can call to report a missing family member. The hotline had been contacted by over 1000 people as of 18th November, remaining key in the telecommunications blackout. Due to its neutral stance, the ICRC is also allowed in detention centres and to visit healthcare centres, donating medical and non-medical items. It calls for respect for people’s lives and property in all of Ethiopia, facilitating ambulance access to all regions of conflict.
The Ethiopian Red Cross society has transported hundreds of injured people to healthcare facilities using said ambulances. As a neutral intermediary, the Red Cross stands ready to aid the release and return of detained people across the country. The Sudanese Red Crescent are currently helping Ethiopian refugees crossing the border – operating clinics, shelters, emergency provisions all while providing temperature checks to those crossing.
This could not be done without the fundamental principles guiding all Red Cross/ Crescent movements in the world, consolidating the notion that people are more important than politics. If aiding refugees this Christmas appeals to you, please donate to the ‘Wrapping for Refugees’ campaign, alternatively drop us a line (@brcsoas)!
Photo Caption: Youth volunteers take to the streets to mobilize against COVID- 19 in Ethiopia (Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia).