The ICRC is gravely concerned by the precarious and unsafe conditions under which civilians are evacuating Gaza. Irrespective of the modalities of evacuations, safe zones or humanitarian pauses, the parties to the conflict continue to be bound by their obligations under international humanitarian law. While civilians continue to move from the north of Gaza to the south, a hundred thousand displaced people lack basic essentials like shelter, food, water and hygiene. The situation is rapidly approaching a humanitarian disaster ~ Jelena Stijačić
More than 100 armed conflicts, which also cause heavy suffering among civilians, were fought worldwide throughout 2023, many of which continue to rage. “Unfortunately, we see enormous violations of IHL [international humanitarian law] in conflicts worldwide, but these violations do not show that the Geneva Conventions are no longer relevant. They show that a lack of respect leads to devastating humanitarian consequences,” says Jelena Stijačić, Head of the Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine.
As she explains, the ICRC provides services that save lives: supplying food, safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter, helping to reduce the danger of landmines, reuniting families etc.
Despite the understanding of donors whose funds are used to finance lifesaving services, the severity of the current situation, coupled with the prevalence of crisis hotspots, means that the ICRC lacks funding for its work, explains Stijačić.
Mrs Stijačić, 2023 marked the 160th anniversary of the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. How do you see the ICRC today?
— Its story is about people: those who suffer from conflict and those whose mission is to protect lives and reduce suffering despite wars and armed violence. We have been on the side of humanity for 160 years. Technological advances have changed warfare drastically, but one thing has remained sadly consistent: the level of suffering endured by civilians caught in conflict. Respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) has been, and will continue to be, the only way to preserve a minimum of humanity during conflicts.
The ICRC story is about people: those who suffer from conflict and those whose mission is to protect lives and reduce suffering despite wars and armed violence
There are more than 100 armed conflicts in the world today and our work is much needed. We provide services that save lives during conflicts. This includes supplying food, safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter, providing healthcare and helping to reduce the danger of landmines and unexploded ordnance. At the ICRC, we also reunite family members separated by conflict and visit detained people to monitor their conditions and treatment, and to help them stay in contact with their families.
When it was founded during the latter part of 19th century, the idea was for the ICRC to help people in situations of warfare. To what extent has the ICRC today adapted to times that are characterised by new ways of endangering people’s security and new humanitarian challenges?
— The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, but it cannot enforce IHL on unwilling countries. Our ability to work is dependent on the efficacy of IHL. Nuclear weapons today continue to threaten all of us, while new ways of causing death and destruction are being developed in lockstep with scientific advancements.
Technology is developing rapidly, with cyber operations, autonomous weapons and the use of outer space raising questions with regard to the application and interpretation of IHL. New threats require innovative responses, such as a ‘digital emblem’ to signal the legal protection of medical facilities and the ICRC in cyberspace, safe environments to develop and test digital humanitarian services, increased preparedness to manage disinformation, or a ‘sovereign humanitarian cloud’ to protect their data.
The mission of the ICRC is based on the two Geneva Conventions, which define the obligations of warring factions to respect the status of the wounded, but also the neutrality of personnel tasked with helping them. Given the characteristics of warfare in the 21st century, do you think the Geneva Conventions also require amendment?
— Our mandate is unique, as set out in the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols, to protect and help people impacted by armed conflict and violence. International treaties that form part of the laws of war have saved countless lives by prohib iting and limiting the use of certain weapons, preventing the indiscriminate killing and maiming of civilians. Beyond treaties, customary IHL crucially fills gaps left by treaty law in both international and non-international conflicts and strengthens the protection offered to victims. Unfortunately, we see enormous violations of the IHL in conflicts worldwide, but these violations do not show that the Geneva Conventions are no longer relevant. Rather, they show that a lack of respect leads to devastating humanitarian consequences. They represent additional reasons to continue calling on countries to respect these conventions, as there is no stronger tool to protect civilians in times of war.
The work of the ICRC is financed primarily by the U.S. and other Western countries. Is there a need to involve other countries more significantly in the financing of your important mission, for the sake of operational sustainability and continuity?
— We receive funding from the countries that are party to the Geneva Conventions, the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, supranational organisations (such as the European Commission) and public and private sources. Our donors have shown a great deal of generosity in 2023, in many cases stepping up their support to our activities in what has been a critical year for the ICRC. Despite this, the fact is that most of our main global operations – from Afghanistan to Syria, Nigeria, Columbia, but also the Western Balkans – remain underfunded. Less funding means fewer people receiving humanitarian assistance.
The world is today facing another new crisis that’s raging in the Middle East. What are the biggest challenges being faced by the ICRC in providing aid to those in danger in the Gaza Strip?
— An unbearable human tragedy is unfolding in front of our eyes in Gaza. Hostilities being led in heavily populated urban areas, including around hospitals, endanger the lives of the most vulnerable people, like medical staff, patients, the wounded, premature babies, people with disabilities and the elderly. The ICRC is gravely concerned by the precarious and unsafe conditions under which civilians are evacuating Gaza. Irrespective of the modalities of evacuations, safe zones or humanitarian pauses, the parties to the conflict continue to be bound by their obligations under IHL.
We are trying to do our best, not only to be actively involved in facilitating the transfer and the release of those Israeli hostages and the Palestinian detainees, but also to provide critical support to the healthcare system alongside the UN and other humanitarian actors
While civilians continue to move from the north of Gaza to the south, a hundred thousand displaced people lack basic essentials like shelter, food, water and hygiene. The situation is rapidly approaching a humanitarian disaster. As such, we are trying to do our best, not only to be actively involved in facilitating the transfer and the release of those Israeli hostages and the Palestinian detainees, but also to provide critical support to the healthcare system alongside the UN and other humanitarian actors. However, our teams also need basic safety conditions in order to be able to operate.
The ICRC has been present in our region for decades. As its current regional coordinator, how do you see the region today?
— The region has changed immensely over the years. The ICRC has provided a significant contribution over these years and there are important areas in which we are still contributing to ensuring a sustainable future across the Balkans. Foremost among these is the unresolved issue of missing persons from past conflicts. This is an issue that impacts individuals, families and nations around the region, and is a major impediment to post-conflict recovery and reconciliation. This is an area where the region can and must exert additional efforts and take full responsibility to identify the missing and bring peace to families that are continuing to search for their loved ones.
The ICRC footprint has also changed remarkably – when it first opened its delegation in Serbia in 1991, in a region that was then wracked by conflict and displacement, it’s aim was to provide urgent humanitarian aid for tens of thousands of people impacted by the war. Belgrade has today become a centre of expertise for the ICRC to provide corporate services to its operations worldwide and the regional resource network for technical and operational support to countries across EURASIA. As someone who was born and grew up in what we now call “the region”, I am highly motivated to bring about positive change and to see where the ICRC can best contribute. I also have very personal responsibilities to work towards an open, cooperative and prosperous society in which possible differences that exist between peoples and nations become an advantage, not a burden.
The mandate of the ICRC in our region is the most dramatic humanitarian consequence of the wars of the former Yugoslavia – resolving the issue of the fate of missing persons. How would you comment on the fact that the fate of 10,000 people who disappeared in the wars of the 1990s remains unknown despite three decades having elapsed since the outbreak of those conflicts?
— Missing persons are among the most tragic legacies of armed conflicts. Imagine spending decades waking up and going to sleep each day with the same thought – what happened to my loved one? This is still the reality of almost 10,000 families from our region. Even for those who have reconciled themselves with the idea that their missing relative is dead, grieving without a body remains an enormous challenge. This uncertainty continues to disrupt all aspects of their lives significantly. Insufficient executive support, a lack of collaboration among former warring parties and overall politicisation of the issue are the main obstacles to finding the remaining missing people in our region.
The region can and must exert additional efforts and take full responsibility to identify the missing and bring peace to families that are continuing to search for their loved ones
Cooperation between the parties is key to achieving results and overcoming obstacles; in situations when direct communication between the parties is not feasible, mechanisms have been put in place for the ICRC to lead the dialogue as a neutral mediator. One such mechanism is the ‘Working Group on persons unaccounted for in connection with events in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999’, the work of which we hope to resume soon, after an impasse lasting two years. The ICRC insists on the humanitarian dimension of the issue of missing persons and focuses exclusively on finding information that can shed light on the location of the person, whether dead or alive. It is a core and necessary service to uphold IHL and the dignity of those hit by conflict.
Viewed from the perspective of the ICRC, and given that we are in the midst of the festive period, what is the most common New Year wish among you and your colleagues?
— We believe strongly that there is much more that can be done for those who need help. This is what we at the ICRC struggle to do every day around the world, as we witness the plight of children, women and men who’ve been denied their basic humanity and dignity. This has been extremely difficult to achieve, and we see the world currently struggling to strike a balance between the security imperatives of states, justice for victims and survivors, the legal obligations of those participating in armed conflicts and humanitarian needs. In this sense, we need more respect for IHL to minimise the suffering of civilians. That is what we strive for, for children’s faces with smiles and without tears. This is a universal wish of all ICRC colleagues, and one that motivates us to never stop believing in the value of what we do.
While civilians continue to move from the north of Gaza to the south, a hundred thousand displaced people lack basic essentials like shelter, food, water and hygiene
Respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) has been, and will continue to be, the only way to preserve a minimum of humanity during conflicts
Insufficient executive support, a lack of collaboration among former warring parties and overall politicisation of the issue are the main obstacles to finding the remaining missing people in our region