Putting into Practice the Geneva Conventions: International Committee of the Red Cross

An Interview with Ariane Bauer, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at ICRC

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been responding to humanitarian crises—and conflict in particular—for over a century and has maintained presence in Ukraine since 2014 and in Russia for decades. The Journal spoke with Ariane Bauer, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at the ICRC, about the federated humanitarian response model of the ICRC and volunteer-based Red Cross country teams, adapting existing procedures for the Ukraine context, and holding governments accountable when civilians are increasingly under threat.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Start by telling us how you arrived at your current role.

Ariane Bauer (AB): I’ve been with the ICRC for 15 years now, mainly in field positions. My previous role was as the head of delegation in Azerbaijan until last summer and before that, in many different contexts, in Ukraine, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and Iraq. I have traveled around quite a bit, always in field positions, including in various managerial positions. Right now, I am the regional director for Europe and Central Asia and I’m also heading what we call the Crisis Response team for the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

JIA: What are some of your day-to-day activities as Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia?

AB: So, linking with the situation in Ukraine and Russia, my role is basically to support the response that we are carrying out in the field. We have a very large team in Ukraine, but we have also deployed to the surrounding countries, to Hungary, where we have a regional office, to Moldova, and we have a long-standing office in Russia, in Moscow, where we have a regional delegation covering Belarus.

This is important for us, because as much as we’re bringing aid to the people affected by this international armed conflict, we’re also wanting to engage with the parties to the conflict in order to discuss issues linked to international humanitarian law with them and how their legal obligations translate into the realities on the ground. So, my day-to-day business is really to make sure that our teams are coordinated in the field and that we are providing the necessary institutional support and strategic guidance to them.

Globally speaking, there is often a gap between the protections that the rules of war lay out in the Geneva Conventions and how this protection is achieved by parties to the conflict. In some circumstances, the ICRC acts as the bridge between the different sides to coordinate or agree on a response, for example to release and repatriate prisoners, to repair a critical water supply situated across frontlines, or to facilitate the safe passage of civilians. The ultimate aim is to minimize the human suffering that comes with war.

JIA: There are many different countries, and within countries there are teams of volunteers. How does the process of coordination work? Are there internal procedures that determine how people and goods move around, or is it a lot of communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page? What do some of these coordinating mechanisms actually look like when the response is in so many different places with so many different kinds of people?

AB: Let me use our operational response to the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a case study to illustrate the process. First of all, we didn’t deploy just in February last year. We have had an operation in Ukraine since 2014 and we have been in Russia for many decades. And we, of course, have contacts on the ground with local authorities, with communities. We have ongoing programs where we coordinate regularly with ministries. A lot is really done in-country.

As of February 2022, we had to very significantly beef up our setup, activating our internal “crisis management mechanism.” This mechanism is put in place when the “normal” functioning of our operations is disrupted by external factors and more resources are needed to handle a situation.

So in terms of scaling up, first and foremost it was about the management of the security situation which had deteriorated starkly. This put our teams at risk and forced us to evaluate how to maintain operations in a rapidly devolving environment. And then it was about how to structure what has become our largest humanitarian operation worldwide. On February 25, a first batch of our “Rapid Deployment Team” left Geneva by road as all flights to Ukraine had been cancelled. We then organized a rotation with our own plane to bring additional specialized personnel to the Romanian border so they could then enter the country by road. The next step was to set up offices in Poland, Hungary, in Romania, and in Moldova, where teams are supporting the response, together with the national Red Cross societies of those countries for refugees. The bulk of our team, which today is more than 800 people, are based in Ukraine.

Naturally, we also coordinate within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which means not only with the National Red Cross Societies of the affected countries, but with all the Red Cross entities that come together globally to help. This coordination is closely done with the International Federation of the Red Cross.

In addition to those internal mechanisms, we also coordinate with an array of other organizations and institutions ranging from government entities to the UN, to NGOs and family associations, to determine where needs are the greatest. It is critical to understand who else is operating in the same humanitarian space to avoid overlaps and bring assistance to as many people in need as possible—particularly when it comes to financial assistance, for example, or food and hygiene items. There are a number of organizations who are doing similar activities, and of course we work closely with local authorities who can often help us understand which communities need which resources.

JIA: How typical of an operation was it to move from a presence characterized by low levels of violence to one in which the security situation is a little uncertain and then ultimately to one of high insecurity? Is that standard, or is it more common to come in after there’s already a deteriorated security situation?

AB: We have been confronted with sudden steep increase in violence before in other contexts. And it did help indeed to have a presence in-country existing before. Still with the rapid escalation of a conflict, security is always a huge issue, so are massive population movements, disruption of existing communication channels and the rapidly evolving needs.

In many contexts, be it Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or Nigeria, we work in extremely volatile contexts and security is a key component of our operations. What was particularly challenging in the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine was the scale and intensity of the military operations and how to respond to the sudden massive increase in humanitarian needs.

We also increased our engagement with the parties to the conflict on their obligations with regards to the Geneva Conventions.[i] This is, of course, a situation where international humanitarian law, including the full suite of the Geneva Conventions, apply. This contrasts with the bulk of conflicts that we’ve seen, perhaps since 9/11, which have tended to be non-international armed conflicts held on the territory of one state. In these cases, international humanitarian law has different practical implications and applications.

If I can cite one particular example here: both parties to a conflict have an obligation to set up what is called a National Information Bureau to collect information about people who were captured, wounded, and also the dead/deceased of the enemy party in their hands. This is such an important activity, because it helps prevent people from going missing and can also give families much-needed information about the fate and whereabout of their loved ones.

That has been a substantial part of our response up until today and will continue to be to help the warring parties collect this information and have that exchanged through the neutral intermediary role of the ICRC. So, there are some very specific provisions that kick in in such international armed conflict situations which do not happen on a regular basis or which we haven’t seen happen often over the last few decades.

JIA: Is there institutional memory from the previous instance of interstate conflict, or was it a genuinely new thing for a lot of people, and so there’s additional preparation that has to go into operating within a completely different legal regime?

AB: The ICRC just celebrated its 160th anniversary, which has been characterized by assistance and protection services to communities affected by armed conflict. In those 160 years, the ICRC has witnessed/experienced various types of hostilities across most continents that have been the source of immense human suffering.

The ICRC operates in frontline areas and has a specific mandate through the Geneva Conventions—which every country in the world has ratified— to carry out activities that are particular to our organisation. This includes things like visiting prisoners or war, acting as a neutral intermediary, organizing safe passage operations for civilians, and facilitating information sharing between parties to the conflict about captured people. We also facilitate the exchange of family news between relatives that the conflict has torn apart, where other means are not available.

These activities—broadly known in the humanitarian field as “protection activities” because they aim at giving special consideration to people made especially vulnerable by armed conflict—come with a steep set of challenges and require parties to the conflict to be willing to uphold their obligations because there isn’t some outside, supra-national body to enforce them. This means that we use consistent engagement, diplomacy, and confidential dialogue with parties to a conflict to try to persuade them to uphold international law. This often moves at a different speed to public narratives and does not always produce obvious or immediate results, but discretion should not be confused with inaction.

In terms of technologies, things have changed. We have adapted over time. While it’s not the first time that we have been setting up a dedicated bureau of our Central Tracing Agency to respond to needs and to follow up on people who have gone missing or have been captured, I do agree that where we have had to adapt and continue to adapt is the massive amount of data out there that travels much faster than in the past. A proper and safe collection and digestion of data is crucial. This includes the everyday interactions with families, requiring human resources in a way that is way larger than what we are used to in a smaller-scale conflict or where we have activities that are on at a smaller scale.

The last time we initiated such a Central Tracing Agency and National Information Bureau setup was during the Iraq War. So there was also quite a bit of dusting off, going to the archives, seeing how things were done, and then adapting them to today’s realities. But that was really done at a speed that was quite impressive. In the first weeks, we were really able to put those mechanisms in place: our own structure as well as supporting Ukraine and the Russian Federation in their obligations to set up similar structures on each side.

The Central Tracing Agency Bureau has received almost 62,000 phone calls, emails, online forms and visits from families looking for information about the loved ones they have been separated from or who have gone missing. Currently, close to 7,900 people are actively being sought, both civilians and military. This number is constantly evolving either because new cases are reported to the ICRC and Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies or, on the contrary, because the fate or whereabout of some are clarified. We know that many more families are anxiously looking for news. To date, we have provided families with news of more than 4,900 people they have been looking for or separated from. Being able to provide information to families contributes to alleviating the anguish of not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

JIA: Are these relationships with the existing governments in Kyiv and Moscow existing relationships or did you have to go out and form new contacts with officials in governments to assist with the setting up of the National Information Bureau and some of those other functions? Are there certain ministries that you work with or is there a single focal point within the government?

AB: Usually, our main entry point wherever we work is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But then, through the different programs that we have, we establish contact with other ministries, and sometimes we have memoranda of understanding or other types of agreements that define specific programs. Typically, we may have programs with the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy of Ukraine, for instance, or with the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Health on health programs, because we also need to adapt what we do to local realities. And importantly, when we’re talking about a conflict, one relationship we need to establish is with the Minister of Defense and other security-related entities in order to engage with them on our humanitarian role and specific mandate. So those are extremely important counterparts for us, in Russia and in Ukraine, as well as in all other countries in which we work.

JIA: What sort of expertise is required to maintain those relationships? Is the person interfacing with their counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in a communications role or acting as a defense specialist?

AB: We have a whole range of specialists that we can bring in depending on the level of engagement, the level of interest, and the needs on the ground to develop different programs.

There is the typical management profile that is usually someone with a generalist background. That will be the representative of the institution towards the entity. But then we also have numerous specialists working with us. When you’re speaking about a relationship, for instance, with the Ministry of Defense, we do have former military officers from all over the world working with us. And they are able to translate military language to civilian language, and vice versa.

For legal matters, we have legal specialists, lawyers, advisors, who are specialists on international humanitarian law and who are able to help design, for instance, support for the alignment of SOPs, existing in Ministries of Defense. They also bring clarity about the legal frame we work in and the various obligations deriving from there.

We have weapon contamination specialists that we can bring in when we’re talking about the conduct of hostilities and the consequences of using certain weapons in certain areas. They often work closely with our protection specialists who come in when we discuss the impact of conflicts on the civilian population and civilian objects.

Those specialists also work closely with other so called "protected persons" (persons that due to their specific vulnerable situation are considered in need of specific protection by the Geneva Conventions), be they people detained as prisoners of war or civilians or separated people. We have forensic specialists who also come in when it’s a question of supporting the management of the dead.

This multidisciplinary approach allows us to assess a situation from different angles, and to design programs responding to various facets of needs.

JIA: A roster of experts comprise the ranks at the top of the organization, but who are the volunteers? Tell us more about staffing at the very local level.

AB: When you talk about volunteers, you’re referring to national societies, which are members of the Red Cross Red Crescent movement at the national level. They are, for us, very important partners on the ground, as they have the local knowledge and the local workforce as well. That helps us in times of crisis, when we have to deploy on a short notice or with a large setup, to really get a grasp of the realities on the ground. For example, in the U.S. you have the American Red Cross that are very much locally-anchored.

While they have professional staff, their lifeblood are activities conducted by volunteers who reach out to local communities and really are the faces of national societies—notwithstanding the entire movement—in their communities and in their countries. As International Committee of the Red Cross, we have almost 100% contracted staff that are deployed to countries, to field operations, in order to develop and carry out programs responding to the humanitarian needs linked to our mandate.

When it comes to the volunteers of National Societies, many volunteers are university students and young people who have decided to dedicate parts of their time supporting their communities under the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem. In war-torn countries, we strive to support the capacities of the volunteers and, whenever possible, work with them in the field to provide them with hands-on experience and to show them how our guiding fundamental principles are applied in practice and how they shape the perception and acceptance of the volunteers—and by extension the movement—within the communities they support.

JIA: How do the national societies and ICRC structure that relationship? What is the chain of command?

AB: National societies are our privileged partners on the ground. We work in complement to bring together our international expertise and their local knowledge in the best interest of beneficiaries. This complementarity also allows us to assess the humanitarian needs and plan our response either jointly or in a closely coordinated manner.

Let me explain: national societies usually have their own programs on the ground. We may team up for some specific programs. For instance, we may find out that there is a need for the provision or training of first aid to communities, for mental health and psychosocial support or for food distributions or distribution of other types of aid. This is where our partnership is at its best. Both sides have their specific competencies and strengths, us oftentimes coming in with perhaps a broader experience from different countries where we can bring in international perspectives, and the national societies which are very strongly rooted in their communities and help customize or contextualize this international expertise to suit the local needs.

JIA: Much of the work that ICRC has been doing is behind the scenes, liaising and interfacing with governments. But what about the media aspect of the work? How do you balance the need for discretion versus the need to raise awareness and generate interest?

AB: Our confidential bilateral dialogue is with warring parties, and this space is needed in order to address sensitive issues in an environment of trust. This confidentiality is also needed for the safety of the persons we serve and ensure this continuity of access to them. On the other hand, in today’s world, it’s not possible to exist without communicating. We need to explain what we do, why we operate in a certain way, why neutrality and impartiality continues to be essential in today’s conflicts, what type of aid we’re bringing to people, and also to express our concern when the situation in some areas is extremely difficult and dramatic.

Those two aspects are not mutually exclusive. We need to have a protected space with parties to the conflict and we need to tell the public why this space is essential and what it allows us to achieve. Communication is also an essential tool to share voices from places inaccessible to most people. It helps us raise awareness on specific situations and on what people affected by armed conflict across the world are going through.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase of misinformation and disinformation spreading, mainly on social media. We do our best to address what is out there and interact a lot with communities who might be directly affected by false information. Misinformation and disinformation always existed but the volume of information shared at all time and speed at which it circulates can be particularly harmful. This is quite challenging, including for us as we operate in already particularly volatile environments.

JIA: Something that has come up repeatedly is this need to balance short-term needs and on-the-ground realities against a longer-term vision for what comes afterwards. Is this something that ICRC is thinking about or comes up in day-to-day work: balancing right now versus what needs to be done to set the country up for next month, next year, five years from now?

AB: There is always a tension that you have to weigh when you’re managing an operation, especially when you’re in an acute phase of a conflict. You will concentrate your energy and your operations on immediate needs. But this is where you need to remain agile, actually, and be able to also adapt, sometimes quite quickly. Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where you operate in an emergency mode over many weeks or months, while in others you will see that the intensity of the conflict fluctuates and you’re really caught between needing to respond to an emergency and moving forward. Going beyond just emergency aid to people and looking at how you can really build the resilience of communities in armed conflict. This is when you shift to the longer-term view. This tension is always there. It’s an inherent part of the challenges that we face in our programming.

One example I would give is of Sudan, which has in just the past few weeks seen escalated violence. In areas like Sudan which have experienced cyclical or reoccurring conflict, it is essential that we maintain a presence even when hostilities are reduced, because it helps us preserve relationships and scale up our operations quickly as we did in Ukraine.

[i] https://www.icrc.org/en/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions.