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What is the Red Cross/Red Crescent and What are its Challenges in the War in Ukraine

  • Red Cross is one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world and has been prominent in armed conflicts such as the war in Ukraine;
  • Despite its strong performance in Ukraine, the civilian population has lost confidence in the institution, generating hostility towards its volunteers;
  • In the complex scenario of global geopolitics, the Red Cross plays a role of incalculable importance for those in need of humanitarian assistance.

On the global stage, the Red Cross and Red Crescent – as the organization is known in countries with a majority of Islamic religion – emerge as beacons of humanity in the midst of conflicts and disasters. These international humanitarian movements transcend borders and cultures, extending aid where it is most needed.

However, the war in Ukraine tests the Red Cross’s resilience, presenting complex challenges. Even in the face of these adversities, the Red Cross remains a hope, seeking to balance the urgency of help with the need for protection, and challenging obstacles to fulfill its mission of alleviating human suffering.

The History and Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

The Red Cross was founded in Switzerland in 1863, but its activities and relevance are global. Both the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are international humanitarian movements dedicated to providing assistance and care in situations of armed conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies.

They are guided by seven fundamental principles that form the foundation of their operations and philosophy. These principles are:

  • Humanity: The principle of humanity emphasizes the need to provide help and assistance to people affected by conflicts and disasters, based on an understanding of human needs and respect for the dignity of each individual.
  • Impartiality: Impartiality requires that the movement provide assistance based on individual needs, without any racial, religious, political or other discrimination. Help is offered on an as-needed basis, prioritizing those who need it most, regardless of any other considerations.
  • Neutrality: Neutrality requires that the movement not take sides in armed conflicts or political controversies, keeping itself free from involvement in disputes and ensuring that its action is directed exclusively towards humanitarian ends.
  • Independence: The principle of independence ensures that the movement is autonomous and free from political, economic, military or other influences. This allows the movement to act in accordance with its own humanitarian guidelines.
  • Volunteering: Volunteering is a fundamental pillar of the movement, involving people willing to dedicate their time and effort to help those in need. These volunteers play a crucial role in the movement’s operations and activities.
  • Unity: Unity highlights the need for a single national Red Cross or Red Crescent society in each country to avoid duplication of efforts and ensure a coordinated and effective approach in emergency situations.
  • Universality: The principle of universality advocates that the movement be accessible and available to everyone, regardless of their origin, race, religion, nationality or political affiliation. This allows help to be offered to anyone in need, anywhere in the world.

Within the scope of the global humanitarian scenario, the Red Cross and Red Crescent emerge as fundamental movements, guided by fundamental principles that guide their altruistic actions.

These seven principles form the essence of these organizations, shaping their mission to provide assistance and relief in situations of conflict, natural disasters and various emergencies.

The organization, in its relentless quest to meet the needs of those affected, found in choosing the name “Red Crescent” a culturally sensitive approach.

This term was adopted in Muslim-majority countries as an alternative to the Red Cross symbol, since the use of the cross could be misunderstood or generate negative resonances in some cultures, especially in the Islamic context.

Subsequently, the addition of the Red Crystal as a third emblem, in 2005, further increased the movement’s flexibility in adapting to different cultural contexts, ensuring its global effectiveness.

In this way, these symbols not only embody a visually recognizable alternative to the Red Cross symbol, but also embody the ongoing commitment of these organizations to extend their help to all corners of the world, while also respecting the cultural and religious sensitivities of the communities they serve. serve.

What is the Humanitarian Role of the Red Cross in Geopolitics?

The Red Cross, with its strong presence and prominent humanitarian role in the geopolitical arena, emerges as a crucial force in alleviating human suffering.

In the midst of armed conflict, the organization plays a vital role, providing humanitarian assistance in hostile zones, providing essential medical care and distributing crucial supplies to those facing the direct consequences of conflict.

By offering support and protection, the organization plays a key role in promoting humanitarian justice and ensuring that the rights of the most vulnerable are respected even in the most challenging circumstances.

A practical example was his role in POW negotiations throughout the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The organization played a key role in facilitating these exchanges, acting as an impartial intermediary between the parties involved.

The entity worked to verify the identity of prisoners, ensure their humane treatment and provide medical assistance when needed. These negotiations not only alleviated the prisoners’ suffering, but also contributed to opening a channel of communication and cooperation in the midst of the geopolitical conflict.

In a world where geopolitical boundaries often obscure the vision of shared humanity, the Red Cross reminds us of our collective responsibility to alleviate suffering and preserve human dignity.

How does the Neutrality and Independence of the Red Cross work?

The Red Cross, as a humanitarian entity with a global reach, maintains solid foundations of neutrality and independence that reverberate in its activities. These pillars translate into concrete actions that transcend the dividing lines of geopolitics and conflict.

By asserting itself as a symbol of impartiality, the Red Cross guarantees access to areas most affected by disasters or conflicts, regardless of the political tensions at play. As an example of this attitude, here are some actions of the institution:

  • Conflict in Syria: During the conflict in Syria, the Red Cross sought access to areas controlled by different groups, including the government, armed opposition and other factions. The organization was able to negotiate with all parties to the conflict to gain safe access to affected areas and provide medical and humanitarian assistance to civilians injured and affected by the conflict, demonstrating its impartiality.
  • Israel-Palestine Conflict: The Red Cross has operated in hostile environments amidst the Israel-Palestine conflict, providing medical and humanitarian assistance to affected populations on both sides of the conflict. Its access to conflict zones such as Gaza and the West Bank is possible due to its reputation for neutrality and impartiality.
  • Natural disaster in Haiti: After the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, the Red Cross was quick to mobilize aid and resources. Its impartiality has enabled it to collaborate with various agencies and organizations to coordinate relief efforts and provide essential medical care, shelter and supplies to all those affected, regardless of their political or religious affiliation.
  • Conflict in South Sudan: During the conflict in South Sudan, the Red Cross maintained its impartiality in providing medical care and support to communities in combat environments. Its ability to negotiate with the different armed groups involved has enabled the organization to bring vital aid to populations in remote and conflict-affected areas.

Away from outside influences and agendas, the organization is free to act in accordance with its humanitarian guidelines. Such independence is an element of trust for both parties to conflict and affected communities.

In this way, it is important to emphasize that the institution provides assistance to the two (or more) parties to the conflict, regardless of their status – military forces, civilians, groups considered terrorists, etc. – , as its focus is on humanitarian aid.

What Are the Challenges of the Red Cross and Its Role in the War in Ukraine?

The Red Cross, in facing the complexity of the War in Ukraine – which has its roots in events that took place in late 2013 and early 2014, when the annexation of Crimea by Russia took place – is faced with a series of intricate challenges that test its humanitarian capacity and its relief mission.

Some of the challenges faced by the Red Cross and its role in the Ukrainian War include:

  • Security in Hostile Environments: The Red Cross faces significant security challenges when operating in conflict-affected areas of Ukraine. The presence of weaponry, hostilities and risks to the personal safety of humanitarian workers limits the organization’s ability to provide effective and comprehensive aid.
  • Access to Affected Areas: Conflict and geopolitical tensions can make it difficult to safely access areas most impacted by war. Negotiating access with conflict parties is crucial to ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those affected.
  • Respect for International Humanitarian Law: The implementation of international humanitarian law is a constant challenge. Ensuring that all parties to a conflict respect norms that protect civilians, prisoners of war and other vulnerable groups requires an ongoing diplomatic effort.
  • Coordination and Effectiveness: Effective coordination in complex situations is a constant struggle. Different humanitarian agencies, international organizations and state actors can have divergent agendas, which can make collaboration and the delivery of coordinated assistance difficult. Even so, after weeks of trying, the ICRC and the UN negotiated a humanitarian corridor that led to the evacuation of around 100 civilians from a steel plant in the city of Mariupol.
  • Criticisms of Neutrality: The Red Cross’s neutrality can be challenged in highly polarized conflicts, where the parties involved may question its impartiality. This can affect an organization’s ability to access conflict-affected areas and play an effective role in protecting those affected. This criticism became intense in Ukraine when the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) started to meet Russian leaders.
  • Complexity of Humanitarian Needs: Humanitarian needs in an ongoing conflict such as Ukraine’s can be multifaceted and rapidly evolving. The Red Cross needs to adapt its operations and strategies to effectively address these changes, ensuring that the needs of those affected are met.
  • Balance between Principles and Needs: The pursuit of impartiality and neutrality can conflict with the urgency of providing assistance to populations in need. The Red Cross faces the challenge of maintaining these core principles while adequately responding to humanitarian emergencies. However, due to accusations of bias by the ICRC, in some cases ICRC volunteers and staff have faced aggression from people they tried to help.
  • Communication and Perception Challenges: Understanding and effectively communicating the principles and nature of Red Cross work can be challenging in contexts where perceptions of the organization can vary. Public education about their role and the importance of their impartiality is critical.

A case that illustrates the challenges faced by the Red Cross in Ukraine is the incident that occurred in 2014 during the crisis in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

In that episode, Red Cross workers were kidnapped by an armed group while carrying out a humanitarian mission in the region, highlighting the security risks that humanitarian workers face in conflict areas.

In seeking the safe release of kidnapped team members, the Red Cross needed to negotiate with the parties to the conflict to secure the freedom of its members, demonstrating the importance of humanitarian diplomacy and mediation in sensitive situations such as this.

The organization needed to balance the quest for the release of the hostages with maintaining its impartiality and neutrality, avoiding being perceived as favoring one side of the conflict over another.

However, despite multiple fronts of aid, Ukrainians are losing faith in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) due to a number of factors that have led to perceptions of a lack of neutrality and effectiveness.

The large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine brought controversy over the ICRC’s neutrality to the forefront, with unsubstantiated allegations that the organization was encouraging the forced evacuation of civilians to Russia. Furthermore, the presence of the ICRC president in meetings with Russian authorities has generated indignation and suspicions about the organization’s stance, despite the fact that mediation is one of the organization’s many functions.

The lack of clarity in the ICRC’s actions and communication, together with the perception that it was not effectively reaching conflict areas to help civilians, resulted in disappointment and distrust on the part of Ukrainians.

The critical humanitarian situation in Mariupol, a city besieged by Russian forces, has added to frustration as efforts to open humanitarian corridors have failed and many people have been evacuated.

flown to Russia under uncertain circumstances. This has led to an increase in hostility towards the ICRC.

The lack of coordination between the ICRC and the Ukrainian Red Cross also contributed to the loss of trust. The lack of differentiation between the two organizations by civilians has led to threats and attacks directed at Ukrainian Red Cross volunteers, negatively affecting their aid activities.

Why is the Red Cross an Important Organization for Geopolitics?

In the complex scenario of global geopolitics, the Red Cross plays a role of incalculable importance for those in need of humanitarian assistance.

However, its performance goes beyond the scope of assistance, extending to the domain of negotiations and mediation, as an impartial and neutral entity. The organization seeks to act as a bridge between conflicting parties, creating spaces for dialogue and opening doors for agreements.

A notable example of this occurred in the peace talks between the governments of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, where the Red Cross played a crucial role in facilitating talks and protecting civilians affected by the conflict.

In the conflict between Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Red Cross acted between the parties involved during the 1990s. By establishing its neutral and reliable presence, the Red Cross helped to build the mutual trust necessary for the parties to the conflict to come to the negotiating table. and reaching an agreement and was instrumental in mediating prisoner exchanges and protecting civilians during this period.

In addition, the organization collaborates closely with the UN and other global entities. Her active participation in committees and working groups related to humanitarian assistance and international humanitarian law also enables her to directly influence policies and guidelines that shape humanitarian action around the world.

Finally, the work of the Red Cross, and its ramifications, goes beyond providing aid and supplies; despite the controversies, it contributes to building a more compassionate world, where the alleviation of suffering and the search for peace become unshakable pillars.

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