Russia-Ukraine international armed conflict: Your questions answered about ICRC’s work

We report and debunk false and misleading information online about us and our work for people affected by the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Article 28 March 2023 Ukraine Russia

This page addresses frequently asked questions about our response to the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It is also updated as needed to report and debunk false and misleading information about us and our work.

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Why don't you speak out more?

ICRC's preferred means of working is through confidential dialogue. A confidential approach allows us to talk candidly with the people, groups, and parties to an armed conflict or those involved in other situations of violence. It allows us to build trust, gain access and ensure the security of both of our staff and the people we are trying to help.

Confidentiality helps us build relationships that are essential to finding solutions and to us being able to do our work. By adopting this approach, we also avoid the risk of politicizing issues through public debate and protect the security of our staff in the field and of the communities we assist.

This approach has helped us to facilitate the release of prisoners of war in Yemen, facilitate the release of kidnapped girls in Nigeria, organise the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo, Syria or Mariupol, Ukraine to name but a few recent examples. This approach saves lives. And this is our priority.

The ICRC does not refrain from public comment, yet it avoids making one-sided condemnations of individual parties to a conflict — or at least does not condemn them too overtly. While we might be criticized for this approach, it is clear that our ultimate objective -- providing humanitarian and protection assistance - must not be jeopardized by public declarations.

Public denunciation remains an exception we use only when we have exhausted every other reasonable means of influencing parties on respect for international humanitarian law and when these means have not produced the desired result. For us, this decision is never taken lightly because of the chance that it might undermine the protection and assistance we can provide. Remember that we work in a lot of places where outside scrutiny – let alone public criticism – is extremely unwelcome.

Why don't you take sides?

Our mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance. Our working methods must allow us to do that, to work in very dangerous and violent contexts of armed conflict on the battlefield on both sides of the frontline. This only works if all parties understand the benefits of our presence.

Neutrality isn't a value as much as it is an operational necessity. That is to say, we don't take neutrality as a moral position. Instead, it allows for relationships to address complex issues that have direct effects on the lives of people affected by conflict.

This might mean working with parties to negotiate safe passage for civilians, which requires the cooperation of both sides, or facilitating the exchange of remains of fallen combatants. It also allows us to be a conduit of information to share news of missing loved ones with anxious families. If we only speak to one side of a conflict, we are not able to raise critical issues such as the treatment of prisoners of war, or the conduct of hostilities.

In order for substantiative changes to be made, it is not enough to just engage with people who are affected by armed conflict. It is imperative that we are also in continuous dialogue with perpetrating parties to conflicts to advocate for respect for international humanitarian law.

The ICRC's position with regard to public statements and appeals is sometimes criticized. When it comes to public statements, the ICRC continues to be regarded as discreet or at least reserved, as it undoubtedly is in comparison with other organizations. However, comparisons can be misleading, given the different mandates, tasks and activities of different organizations.

Is the ICRC corrupt and biased?

We know that people often look for explicit support for their side in a conflict—and lack of explicit support is easy to mistake for support of the opposing side. Neutrality means that we prioritize people affected by conflict and other situations of violence, regardless of their affiliations and geographic location. And in order to reach them, we must be able to speak freely with those who are parties to a conflict.

As states have an obligation through international humanitarian law to facilitate the work of the ICRC, we regularly speak to both parties to the conflict in the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Our dialogue ranges from political leaders to frontline commanders, to promote respect for international humanitarian law. Through that dialogue we advocate for States to fulfil their obligations and alleviate the suffering of the people affected by conflict. This requires consistent engagement, neutrality, and impartiality.

Only through the process of dialogue can we build the level of trust that will allow us to bring assistance to some of the most vulnerable people—combatants held and civilians in frontline areas notably.

Accountability is also key for the ICRC, first towards the community we serve, but also to our partners and donors. Every year, we release our annual report in June where people can find all information on our funding.

What about President Zelensky's comments at the G20?

Since February the ICRC has been demanding access to all prisoners of war and civilian internees. They have a right to receive ICRC visits. All families have a right to know what has happened to their loved ones. We will continue to insist on unimpeded and regular access to all POWs.

However, the responsibility to grant access to the ICRC lies with the parties to the conflict, the States that agreed to the obligation contained in the Geneva Conventions.

We call on parties to the conflict to fulfil their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, including by granting the ICRC access to POWs and civilian internees.

Why aren't you doing more for POWS?

The ICRC has been visiting hundreds of prisoners of war (POWs) on both sides of the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. When we visit a place of detention, we assess the conditions of internment and the treatment of PoWs. We also share much-awaited news with their families and provide items such as blankets, warm clothes, personal hygiene items, and books.

We know many other PoWs and civilian internees should have received similar visits and we continue to demand access to all of them, guided by our humanitarian commitment and our mandate under the Geneva Conventions. We also know that each day is full of uncertainty for prisoners of war and their families who are looking for reassurance.

Under the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions and as part of our work the ICRC must be allowed to see all prisoners of war and civilian internees, have access to all places they're held and be allowed to repeat visits, as often as needed. All states are legally obligated to make this happen as all states have signed the Geneva Conventions.

We cannot enforce the rules applicable in this or in any armed conflict. That is the responsibility of the parties, especially in an international armed conflict, including in occupied territory. Whether they like it or not, the onus is on the warring parties to stick to the rules they agreed to.

We share the frustrations of those families who wait in anguish with no news at all. Families have the right to know about the fate of their loved ones, whether they are alive, wounded, or dead. Many have waited anxiously for many long months, and they need answers today. They are impatient, as we are.

The ICRC collects information about these people and transmits it back to their country of origin, to ensure families know about the fate of their loved ones. Since February, we have provided nearly 4,000 families with news of their loved ones. This work gives families hope and is an absolute humanitarian imperative.

We have keenly felt the press of time as the calendar has turned and we have not been able to visit all POWs. Their humanity and dignity cannot be set aside. They require comfort, care, assistance, and protection—just as civilians do. That's why we have been continuously working with parties to the conflict to gain access.

Are you involved in deporting people?

The ICRC does not ever help organize or carry out forced evacuations. This applies everywhere we work. We would not support any operation that would go against people's will and our principles.

We are aware of the allegations that have been published in the media of involuntary large-scale movements of people and continue to follow the issue closely.

Our work is not based solely on publicly available material and involves fact-checking by ourselves. Whenever we have credible allegations to present on IHL violations, we do so to all parties in a confidential and bilateral dialogue. Our aim is to contribute though this dialogue to improve the respect of IHL. Apart from this, one of our core areas of work remains to reconnect family members who have been separated due to this international armed conflict.

What are you doing for the children who have been separated from their families?

We know that people are deeply worried about the safety and wellbeing of their loved ones. Families affected by armed conflicts the world over frequently suffer from being separated from their loved ones, which can have devastating consequences on their wellbeing and ability to resume a normal life.

As in any armed conflict, the ICRC discusses the issue of unaccompanied and separated children with Russian and Ukrainian authorities in order to ensure that families and children can be registered and the appropriate follow-up for their missing family members carried out. Family members of children who are missing can open tracing cases with the ICRC to initiate a search.

Once family contact has been restored, and both the family member and the child consent, the ICRC and National Red Cross Societies will facilitate family reunifications wherever possible.

What are you doing in Ukraine?

We have worked in Ukraine since 2014 and we have massively scaled up our presence and activities since 24 February 2022 to better support people affected by the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance including food, safe water, medicine, and shelter materials.

● We have nearly 800 staff including medical staff, weapons contamination specialists and other emergency team members currently working in Ukraine. The majority are Ukrainian colleagues who often suffer the consequences of the conflict themselves.

● We currently have teams across 8 locations in places including Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv, Poltava, Vinnytsia, Dnipro, Donetsk and Luhansk. From there, our teams are working with communities affected by the conflict in dozens of cities including along the frontlines.

● We operationalized a dedicated Bureau of the Central Tracing Agency on Ukraine to collect, centralize, and transmit information about the fate and whereabouts of people, both military and civilians deprived of their liberty, who have fallen in the hands of the enemy.

● We have also teams in Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Russia to support our regional response and coordinate with our partners from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

● In addition to stepping up our operational response on the ground, we continue our confidential dialogue with the parties on the conduct of hostilities as well as on the protection of the civilian population, reminding them of their obligations under international humanitarian law. In these conversations, we raise pressing humanitarian concerns, including access to POWs, the safe passage of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Our aim is to alleviate suffering of people living through conflict.We have worked in Ukraine since 2014 and we have massively scaled up our presence and activities since 24 February 2022 to better support people affected by the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance including food, safe water, medicine, and shelter materials.

Highlights of work done across Ukraine in 2022:

● Over 894,000 people provided with basic assistance, including food and hygiene items

● Support to the production and delivery of clean water to up to 10.6 million civilians (e.g. water trucks, pumps, pipes)

● Distribution of cash and materials for emergency repairs of damaged homes for over 55,000 households.

● Some 1.4 million people have access to adequate heating in the Kherson, Donetsk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Kyiv regions.

● Over 160,000 people residing in IDP centres received basic assistance.

● Over 346,000 persons across Ukraine were supported with unconditional cash assistance – nearly CHF 112 million

● 1,528 people reached with mental health support.

● 170 healthcare facilities were supported with medical equipment, tools, and medicines.

● 708 wounded and sick persons were evacuated by the ICRC ambulance teams.

● 103,000 people were able to continue their treatment with donations of medication for non-communicable diseases to medical facilities.

● Around 4,000 communications were directly made by the ICRC to families to provide news of their loved ones, and thousands more were provided to the Parties.

● More than 16,000 people improved their awareness of risks related to the danger of unexploded ordinance.

Where did all of the donations go that the ICRC was given?

We saw an enormous outpouring of support to help those suffering as a result of the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In 2022, we have increased our capacity to help people affected by the armed conflict and spent around 416 million CHF to respond to their needs across Ukraine and in neighboring countries.

The majority of our expenses[1] – nearly 92% - concern Ukraine. The remaining expenses concern our regional response in neighboring countries as well as our dedicated Central Tracing Agency Bureau for the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which helps families reconnect with their missing loved ones, and provides information on the whereabouts of those fallen into enemy hands, dead or alive, including third-country nationals.

This support allowed the ICRC to scale up to respond to the immense needs across the areas directly affected by the hostilities. We now have nearly 800 staff working in 8 areas most affected by the conflict to deliver life-saving relief and services to millions of people.

Since February 2022, we have continuously assessed and revised our operational plans and budget for Ukraine and surrounding countries. This approach ensures that our plans and planned expenditure are realistic reflections of what we will achieve and spend in response to the humanitarian needs in this crisis.

The ICRC is extremely grateful for the outpouring of support in response to the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Contributions from Red Cross and Red Crescent partners, individuals, the private sector, and governments, have made a real difference in the lives of millions of people impacted by the conflict.

Why can't people use the red cross emblem if it will possibly save their lives?

Whether on a bus, or in their home, we want to be clear: civilians are protected under the Geneva Conventions. Red cross emblem or not, parties to the conflict must minimize harm to civilians.

However, the use of the red cross emblem under international humanitarian law is specific and strictly regulated. In armed conflict, it may be used by medical staff and facilities, including army medics and army medical vehicles. It may also be used by Red Cross and Red Crescent workers, vehicles, facilities and the humanitarian relief they bring.

When used by medical professionals, the red cross and crescent are emblems of protection that international law gives to the wounded and sick, and those caring for them, in armed conflict. The symbols can also show a connection to a Red Cross or Red Crescent organization. They help people know they are humanitarian organizations, helping people in natural disasters, times of war or other emergencies – purely based on need.

Therefore, misuse of emblems can have many serious consequences, primarily for the people who are most in need by jeopardizing the safe access of military medical services and Red Cross or Red Crescent staff and volunteers to people and communities in need during humanitarian crisis.

Misuse, such as people or organizations unaffiliated with the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement putting the emblem on vehicles (including those undertaking humanitarian activities), also puts the protective function of these symbols at risk if the warring parties and weapon bearers lose trust in what the emblems stand for. We ask that the laws protecting the emblem are respected by the parties.

Allegations of illicit activities:

● The ICRC is developing biological weapons
● The ICRC has delivered expired medicine
● The ICRC is trafficking (children's) organs
● NATO uses ICRC vehicles to transport weapons

Since the early days of the escalation of the armed conflict, there have been a number of false claims that have cropped up about the ICRC and our work.

The ICRC has nothing to do whatsoever with any of the activities alleged above and strongly condemns the spread of such rumors. It would go against all legal norms, as well as our principles, to engage in these activities. Providing urgent assistance to people affected by conflict and working to maintain respect for international humanitarian law are our top priorities.

We welcome questions about our work and strive to be as transparent as possible about our operations without jeopardizing the confidential and bilateral dialogue that is central to our engagement with parties to conflicts across the globe.

Is the video of the Ukrainian Red Cross volunteers restraining a person real?

We are aware of the video, taken in spring 2022 in Lviv, showing two volunteers from the Ukrainian Red Cross Society restraining a person.

This incident was investigated by the Ukrainian Red Cross Society and resulted in the dismissal of the two volunteers.

The staff and volunteers of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society adhere to the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and are guided by a policy of zero tolerance for discrimination of any form. Their priority is to provide assistance to communities affected by the international armed conflict.

1  These figures represent expenses of the ICRC, which are still being finalized and are unaudited. The exact figures for each of the delegations concerned will be available in our Annual Report 2022, which will be launched in July 2023, following the auditing and closure of accounts.