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Friday, December 02, 2022

International Red Cross in Ukraine says it is a victim of a disinformation campaign

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Taras Logginov, Head of Emergency Response for the Ukrainian Red Cross in Kiev, Ukraine on March 30, 2022.ANTON SKYBA / The Globe and Mail

The head of the Ukrainian Red Cross’ emergency response division says efforts to help people affected by the war with Russia have been hampered by a controversy surrounding its international counterpart and its role in the conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been accused of excessive cooperation with Moscow and criticized for considering opening an office in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia near the Ukrainian border, which according to some can be used to facilitate the eviction of Ukrainians.

ICRC President Peter Maurer has angered critics by taking pictures while shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov following a recent meeting in Moscow.

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This week, a group of Ukrainian MPs called on the ICRC to reconsider its plans for the Russian office. More than 3,000 people, including representatives of dozens of Ukrainian humanitarian organizations, sent an open letter to Mr. Maurer signed in which he called on his organization to do more to stop forced evacuations and work more effectively with local volunteers. And the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to raise concerns about the Rostov-on-Don office and question how donations to the Canadian Red Cross are being spent in Ukraine.

ICRC officials say the allegations are unfounded – that the Red Cross will never evacuate people against their will. The organization said it works with all sides in conflict zones to help those in need and always remains neutral.

It set up a temporary office in Rostov-on-Don when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to help people fleeing the conflict, but that office closed in 2018. Any new branch would have a purpose similar to that of Red Cross shelters in other border countries, such as Poland, Romania and Hungary, which would help thousands of refugees fleeing the war.

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“To be clear: the ICRC does not want to open an office in the south of Russia to ‘filter’ Ukrainians, as many reports claim. We are not opening a refugee camp or any other type of camp, “the organization said in a statement. It added that it was facing ‘deliberate, targeted attacks’ using false narratives and disinformation to discredit the ICRC.

Taras Lugginov, who heads the emergency response division of the Ukrainian Red Cross, said the outcry had hurt the local charity, which is completely separate from the ICRC. “After all the negative coverage of the Red Cross, from Facebook, from the government, it just shot back at our organization,” he said in an interview in Kiev on Wednesday. His group already has a desperate need for supplies and protective equipment for volunteers, he said, and the controversy has led many people to question the integrity of the Red Cross in general.

Mr. Lugginov said part of the problem is the public’s lack of understanding of the global Red Cross structure. There are three different branches: national organizations such as the Ukrainian Red Cross; the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which works with national organizations; and the ICRC, which operates in conflict areas and is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC receives funding from governments that are signatories to the conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians during wartime.

Mr. Lugginov said that early in the war he had tense talks with the ICRC about his lack of assistance in some areas of heavy fighting, including Mariupol and Kiev. And he had an ongoing dispute with the international group for years over attempts to train the Ukrainian army in first aid, something the ICRC rejected. But he said relations have improved recently and he has no doubt about the ICRC’s neutrality. “I know the ICRC is very neutral. They do not create conflict. ”

Valentina Cherkai, a Red Cross volunteer, said she suffered setbacks due to the controversy. Ms Cherkai is a nurse who also sets up long volunteer shifts at a Red Cross tent in the Kyiv train station. The small operation has helped a steady stream of people since the war began, often treating wounds and other trauma. “A lot of bad words are being directed at us, and some people are becoming more aggressive,” she said Wednesday. “They think that Red Cross is bad. They think that if the ICRC speaks to the Russian side, they will support Russia. “

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Ms Cherkai said the misinformation had unfairly tarnished the reputation of both Red Cross organizations. “The ICRC must talk to both sides of the armed conflict and they are just trying to do their job. “There are a lot of manipulations in the media and social media,” she said. “I know they are trying to do their best.”

Alyona Synenko, an ICRC spokeswoman in Kiev, said the charity was concerned about the damage the critics had inflicted on the Red Cross movement. “We are extremely concerned about this,” she said. “Disseminating misinformation can be dangerous.”

She said the ICRC is working closely with the local Red Cross and has helped distribute 500 tonnes of humanitarian supplies. It also opened a safe transit area around Sumy, in northeastern Ukraine, to help evacuate people to other Ukrainian villages.

She added that Mr. Maurer traveled to Moscow after spending five days in Ukraine and meeting with top government officials. “We are speaking to both parties on behalf of the civilian population affected by this conflict,” she said.

In a statement, the Canadian Red Cross said it had raised more than $ 128 million to help people in Ukraine, which includes $ 30 million in federal government matching funds. It added that $ 82.5 million is directed to aid efforts on the ground, “with about two-thirds of that amount to support people in Ukraine and one-third of that amount to help people from Ukraine who are displaced in surrounding countries. “

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