ICRC Director-General in Ukraine: Concern over nuclear plant situation and access to prisoners of war
It is a pleasure for me to address both Ukrainian and international media here in Kyiv today.
I am in Ukraine to discuss the humanitarian situation with the authorities and to reiterate ICRC’s commitment to support those in need. I am meeting communities affected by the international armed conflict to hear for myself how we can best help. Together with the ICRC team here, I am also taking stock of our humanitarian response over the last six months – which builds on our sustained work in Ukraine since 2014, in Donetsk and Luhansk.
This week alone, the base of the Ukrainian Red Cross in Sloviansk was hit and severely damaged, which is totally unacceptable and reminds us of the high cost of urban warfare on civilians and infrastructure.
I want to express my concern about the fighting in or near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. It is encouraging that a team from the IAEA is now on its way to Zaporizhzhia to inspect the damage, because the stakes are immense. When hazardous sites become battlegrounds, the consequences for millions of people and the environment can be catastrophic and last many years. In the event of a nuclear leak, it will be difficult if not impossible to provide humanitarian assistance. It is therefore time to stop playing with fire and instead take concrete measures to protect this facility, and others like it, from military operations. The slightest miscalculation could trigger devastation that we will regret for decades.
Next, I’d like to give you some details about our direct support to people in Ukraine:
Together with the Ukrainian Red Cross and other Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement partners, the ICRC has massively increased its humanitarian operations since 24 February. The scale of the Movement response in Ukraine and neighboring countries is unprecedented. I would like to highlight three areas in particular:
- In a joint program with the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, we have provided some 300,000 people with cash totaling 1.5 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (roughly $40 million). This financial assistance goes to people who need it most, such as single household families, people with conflict-related injuries or people with disabilities.
- Working with local water authorities, we have provided over 9 million people with improved access to clean and drinkable water.
- And over 700’000 vulnerable people now have improved access to healthcare.
We work hand-in-hand with the Ukrainian Red Cross, and I cannot praise them enough. In the most challenging conditions, their work is simply impressive. Working closely with local and national authorities, the staff of our respective organizations, as well as the many Ukrainian Red Cross volunteers, have helped communities throughout the country, from delivering first-aid training in bomb shelters to providing food to displaced people.
But this support covers only a fraction of the needs our teams on the ground witness every day. Together with our partners, we will continue to respond as best as we can.
I’d like to say a few words about the very important issue of prisoners of war:
To date we have only been able to visit hundreds of prisoners of war on both sides. And we know there are thousands more we still need access to. We will keep demanding access to all POWs, guided by our humanitarian commitment and our mandate under the Geneva Conventions.
It has now been one month since the outrageous attack on the Olenivka penal facility. Despite intense negotiations behind-the-scenes, the ICRC has not yet been given the necessary guarantees to visit the POWs and check their conditions. We are working hard to change that.
Yesterday, I met with families of prisoners of war, who in some cases have not heard news of their loved ones in months. I was deeply moved by their words, their emotions and the stories they shared. The importance of the ICRC’s role to reconnect separated families has never been clearer to me. Since February, we have provided more than 3,000 families with news of their loved ones. This work gives families hope and is an absolute humanitarian imperative.
I 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 six long months, and they need answers today. They are impatient, as we are.
As the ICRC’s director-general, I reaffirm now to all families of POWs, our total and unwavering commitment: The ICRC will not stop pushing with persistence and determination for access to and information about your loved ones. This demand is urgent and non-negotiable.
Access to POWs means we can monitor and request improvement to their conditions and treatment. It allows us to help them stay in touch with their loved ones. One example: We recently facilitated the transport of more than a thousand letters from servicemen in captivity from Russia to Ukraine, where they will be handed to their families by the National Information Bureau.
Both Ukraine and Russia have legal obligations under the 3rd Geneva Convention to facilitate this essential work. But more than an obligation, it is the right thing -- the ethical thing -- to do. And it benefits both sides.
I know people have questions about the ICRC’s role in Ukraine and I believe it’s important to be clear about what we can and cannot do as an organization.
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.
The ICRC, as a humanitarian organization, has no way to force governments and militaries to act. We don’t have weapons. We are not politicians.
In the case of the Azovstal plant, ICRC facilitated the safe passage of combatants out of the plant, in coordination with the parties to the armed conflict. Given that they were then POWs in the hands of the adversary, we registered their information on the understanding that the ICRC would later be allowed to visit them. But we cannot guarantee the safety of the POWs once in the adversary’s hands, because it is simply not within our power to do so.
We do want it known that outside the public spotlight we raise issues with the parties, and we do so in a direct and uncompromising way. We also continuously offer our support as a neutral intermediary to facilitate agreements of humanitarian nature between the parties. In line with our mandate and working modalities, we do all this in a bilateral and confidential manner. The impact of that work is not always visible, and progress can take time. Our confidentiality is not unconditional. We do speak out publicly when the bilateral approach doesn’t work and when we believe this to be in the best interests of people affected by armed conflict. But first we focus our efforts on our dialogue with the parties. Experience shows us this approach bears fruit.
Finally, before I open for questions, I want to reiterate just how deadly these last six months have been for civilians and devastating to essential civilian infrastructure. Hospitals, shopping malls, schools, bridges, apartments, train stations and homes have been damaged or destroyed on countless occasions. Fighting has damaged water, power and gas supply systems, medical facilities, and schools. It is particularly painful for the many children who today don't have a school to go back to.
This underscores the inherent risks of urban fighting. The use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area against military targets in populated areas may violate international humanitarian law, which prohibits indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. I have seen for myself the dire and long-term consequences of such fighting in cities like Aleppo, Saada, and Mosul. Attacks on civilian infrastructure and essential services have a crippling effect on civilian life and objects. In Ukraine today, they must stop.
This is why international humanitarian law exists. It lays down the rules applicable in international armed conflicts that protect us now and the generations that succeed us. More than simply rules, the Geneva Conventions are expressions of our common humanity and are the ultimate safety net for dignity in the midst of the devastation of armed conflict. We will continue to support their implementation and we will continue pushing with determination and resolve for these values to be upheld.
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