Staying neutral, not naive, in Ukraine

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross is once again proving its value by seeking Russia’s permission to provide services to victims of the invasion of Ukraine who are now in Russian territory. The agency should carry on its work. It should not be discouraged by accusations that it has taken Russia’s side in the conflict.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/03/2022 (186 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross is once again proving its value by seeking Russia’s permission to provide services to victims of the invasion of Ukraine who are now in Russian territory. The agency should carry on its work. It should not be discouraged by accusations that it has taken Russia’s side in the conflict.

In order to serve prisoners of war and refugees, the ICRC must win the co-operation of the governments involved. The agency sometimes has to talk to some really nasty people. This can easily lead to accusations of complicity with evil. The alternative, however, is to bring no help to prisoners and refugees.

Some Ukrainian-Canadians in Manitoba hit the roof last week when they saw pictures of Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. After talks with Ukraine officials in Kyiv, Mr. Maurer was in Moscow discussing protection of civilians who are found on both sides of the battle lines.

“We were appalled, frankly,” said Myroslava Pidhirnyj, a board member of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’s Manitoba provincial congress. “Would they be negotiating with Hitler?”

Red Cross representive Peter Maurer, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday. (Associated Press)

The ICRC has acknowledged that it did very little to make known the Nazi genocide in wartime Germany or to protect the victims of that genocide. The fact remains that the Russian government today controls Russia and the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian armed forces. In order to find Ukrainian refugees, identify them and help them, the ICRC has to obtain Russian government permission.

Russia is likely to use the presence of the Red Cross to support its claims about its kindness to Ukrainians and about the character of its invasion, which it calls a special military operation.

The world, however, will not be fooled. The world is well-informed about the cruel brutality Russia’s army is inflicting upon Ukraine and its people. The immense majority of member governments of the United Nations have already voted to tell Russia to stop the war.

The ICRC should continue its efforts to support refugees in Russia and in Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. It should preserve the strict neutrality that allows it to talk to all belligerents in the Ukraine war and all the other wars in which it plays a humanitarian role.

Neutrality can sometimes look like naiveté or moral blindness, but it is not the same thing. It is a necessary discipline. Without neutrality, the ICRC would be unable to pursue its work and the war refugees would remain unaided.

The ICRC, however, is just doing its job of extending humanitarian help to the victims of war. It is better to continue that work, even at the risk of misinterpretation, than to withhold help.

The anger of Ukraine’s friends in Canada is perfectly understandable. Russia’s official lies about Ukraine are infuriating. Any gesture that seems to legitimize those lies looks like a further attack on Ukraine and a way of prolonging the war.

The ICRC, however, is just doing its job of extending humanitarian help to the victims of war. It is better to continue that work, even at the risk of misinterpretation, than to withhold help.

The ICRC this week was also asking the public authorities in Canada not to mix humanitarian aid together with supplies of weapons as though these were parallel ways of supporting Ukraine. Prime Minister Trudeau last week announced both guns and butter for Ukraine in a way that could make the work of the Red Cross seem like an act of war.

A neutral posture is hard to maintain and easy to misinterpret. The ICRC has to stay as neutral as possible or lose its usefulness.

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