Reaching the needy in eastern Ukraine with neutral and impartial aid

26 September 2014
Lisichansk, Lugansk Oblast. Displaced people receive freshly baked bread from the Lisichansk branch of the Ukrainian Red Cross. The flour for this bread was provided by the ICRC.  ©ICRC/GUTMAN, Amnon

With the winter approaching, civilians are still in need of aid in eastern Ukraine. Laurent Corbaz, head of operations for Europe and Central Asia, explains the ICRC’s main concerns and priorities in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

You’ve been working through the summer on the ICRC’s humanitarian response to the conflict in Ukraine. What has the ICRC managed to achieve?

We’ve been very alarmed at the loss of life and the destruction of homes and civilian infrastructure throughout the months of conflict in eastern Ukraine. We’ve sought to remind the armed groups of their responsibility to safeguard the lives of those not taking part in the fighting and to ensure the wounded and sick receive the medical care they need. That has been a very important part of our response. And we have been able to meet some of the shelter, food and medical needs of the most vulnerable people affected by the fighting, such as displaced families or those returning to damaged homes in Ukraine, or refugees who have fled to Russia. At all times it has been critical to ensure that our humanitarian response is implemented solely on the basis of need and irrespective of political considerations. 

What are the ICRC’s main humanitarian concerns now?

In the areas where fighting has been heaviest the damage to people’s homes is extensive. The winter is harsh in this region so those homes need to be made watertight and windproof to protect people from the elements. We’re going to provide glass, cement and roofing material. Water systems were damaged and need repairing too. Unfortunately several hospitals were damaged by fighting and improving access to health care for the population is another of our priorities. We’ll also be focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable – the disabled, those who cannot return home, the elderly and children. 

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is extremely polarized, and we cannot underestimate the influence of media and social media. Amid the turmoil of heated debates, we’re focusing on the plight of people directly or indirectly affected by the conflict. We are present in eastern Ukraine; we have constructive dialogue with the authorities in Kiev, as well as in Donetsk and Lugansk. That means we have direct access to the people in need to deliver help in a neutral and impartial way.  

Have the levels of violence decreased?

Broadly speaking, the ceasefire of 5 September is holding, though we remain concerned about incidents of violence, in particular around Donetsk, where there are reports of artillery exchanges and clashes resulting in casualties. What’s important is that progress be made at a political level to further stabilize the situation. While the ICRC needs to maintain good relations with all governments and authorities to do its work on the ground, it is not our role to foster political reconciliation.  

There are reports of mass graves being found. Does the ICRC have a role in investigating such reports?

We are disturbed by reports of discoveries of graves containing several bodies. Our role is to push for human remains to be properly recovered and handled in a dignified manner so that missing persons can be identified and families can learn the whereabouts of their loved ones. We are ready to provide forensic expertise to support those responsible for handling human remains so that identification can take place. We do not take part in any criminal investigation and will not comment publicly on reports of crimes or violations. That’s part of our bilateral dialogue with the parties to the conflict.  

Are you concerned at the treatment of detainees?

One of our main tasks is to visit people deprived of their liberty as a result of conflict, precisely because such people are vulnerable and need the protection of an independent, international organization. We do not negotiate for the release of detainees or question the grounds for detention. Our role is to monitor the treatment of detainees and make recommendations to the appropriate authorities in a confidential manner. We are visiting places of detention run by the Ukrainian government on an ad-hoc basis, and hope to enter into a more formal agreement with them, giving us access to all those detained in connection with the violence. We are also seeking to visit other detainees held in eastern Ukraine. We are ready to act as a neutral intermediary for the simultaneous release of prisoners if requested by the parties.

The ICRC has been criticized for not facilitating the arrival of convoys from Russia. Why have we not been able to do so?

From the start, I was in constant contact with the authorities in Kiev, Moscow and in eastern Ukraine about the convoys. The ICRC was willing to facilitate the arrival of convoys, but we could only do our work if the parties to the conflict agreed on our role and guaranteed the safety of our staff. Unfortunately, we did not have the necessary security guarantees for our team for the first convoy from Russia, and for subsequent convoys the Russian and Ukrainian authorities did not agree on procedures that would allow us to work. 

We want humanitarian aid to reach those in need and all aid delivered to eastern Ukraine has been welcome, as it has helped alleviate shortages. However, agreement is needed at a political level for cross-border aid operations and it is not the role of the ICRC to broker such discussions. We remain ready to advise local authorities about distributing aid, if needed. We urge all sides to agree on ways to safely bring in much-needed aid to relieve the suffering of those who are struggling to cope or desperately need health care.    


Rubezhnoe, Lugansk Oblast. ICRC is delivering food items to the Rubezhnoe branch of the Ukrainian Red Cross for distribution to displaced persons from the Lugansk region. ©ICRC/GUTMAN, Amnon