The ICRC – the International Committee of the Red Cross – is one of Switzerland's main partners. The international organisation, which is based in Geneva, receives nearly 30% of the SDC's annual budget for humanitarian aid. Making financial contributions in this way enables the SDC to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people living in parts of the world that are hard to access, beleaguered by violent armed conflict. For Swiss Humanitarian Aid, the protection of civilians is a strategic priority.
The ICRC has logistics bases and personnel located all over the world. As a non-political organisation and guardian of the Geneva Conventions, it enjoys considerable freedom to act on the ground.
In the case of Syria the ICRC employs 300 staff – including 50 expatriates – to deliver humanitarian aid to people in need. In addition to the 4 million Syrians who have fled their country, an estimated 7 million more have been displaced within Syria by the war.
CHF 610 million contribution
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Switzerland has contributed CHF 370 million to the ICRC as a contribution to its headquarters budget, plus an additional amount in excess of CHF 240 million for specific field operations carried out by the ICRC. This second amount includes about CHF 38 million that has specifically benefited the people of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
Switzerland's contributions made it the ICRC's third largest donor in 2014. And the partnership does not end there: Switzerland and the ICRC are working together to ensure greater respect for international humanitarian law. Interview with Robert Mardini, the ICRC's regional director for the Middle East.
Mr Mardini, what is achieved in concrete terms in Syria with the financial contributions that Switzerland makes to your organisation?
Through the contributions of its donors, the ICRC has been able to double its operating budget in Syria several times since 2011. This means that we have been able to redouble our efforts to provide clean drinking water, carry out food distributions, construct shelters and provide medical assistance for IDPs and the local people hosting them. It is gratifying and yet at the same time it is not enough. In humanitarian terms the situation is continuing to deteriorate, with the fighting growing in intensity. In Syria alone, 12 million people depend on humanitarian aid for their survival. Among the IDPs, many have had to flee the violence several times – repeatedly having to leave their home or makeshift shelter in search of safety.
Switzerland supports the principle of guaranteed safe access for humanitarian assistance to all persons in need. From the ICRC's point of view, how and where is access to the victims not currently ensured in Syria?
Of the 12 million Syrians that I mentioned, about 5 million are in places that are hard to reach. Some 200,000 people are even trapped inside areas surrounded by armed forces, as in Yarmouk camp, or in the city of Deir ez-Zor. In such cases, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are among the very few organisations that sometimes manage to cross the front lines and gain access to the people there in need. This always requires long and patient negotiations with all parties to the conflict.
Does that include Islamic State?
The ICRC is willing to talk to all groups, on behalf of the civilians who have a right to receive protection, supplies and care. That said, I can't deny that our contact with Islamic State is very limited. We had sporadic exchanges with some of its local representatives in Deir ez-Zor and Al-Raqqah in Syria, and in Fallujah and Mosul, in Iraq. This allowed us to bring in medical assistance and disinfectants to make drinking water safe. But this contact has become rare since the end of 2014.
Is Switzerland any different from the ICRC's other donors?
We see Switzerland as a donor country that is not only generous but at the same time both reliable and flexible. Its contribution to our headquarters budget is crucial for the smooth running of the ICRC. Its funding for our ad hoc field operations is also very important. I am pleased that we have such open and constructive dialogue with the SDC. Switzerland tries to help the ICRC in the areas where we identify needs, and understands when we sometimes have to defer some of our planned spending to the following year. All in all, I would say that what we receive from Switzerland is not just funding: it is politically coherent support. Efforts by Switzerland to promote respect for international humanitarian law are most valuable to our organisation.
Are you thinking of the joint diplomatic initiative launched in 2012 by Switzerland and the ICRC to strengthen the implementation of international humanitarian law?
Not just that. We also appreciate the discrete and appropriate consultations that Switzerland leads in the context of the Syrian crisis to establish a neutral and impartial humanitarian space. Everything that goes towards strengthening respect for international humanitarian law is beneficial.
In the news we often see examples of this law being clearly violated…
That's true, but it is also up to us to point out that at the same time some progress is being made. In Aleppo, for example, we negotiate regularly with the government and twenty or so armed groups. All of them understand the ICRC's role and that in the midst of conflict, a minimum of humanity must be upheld. In this sense, the humanitarian consultations instigated by Switzerland are a glimmer of hope that could well pave the way for national reconciliation, the day that becomes a possibility. By agreeing to respect fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, local communities can already learn to live together once again.