#120 The G|O Briefing, December 1, 2022

The ICRC's "silent failure" on Ukraine — Geneva's role in demining efforts — A new US-Chinese bipolar world? Maybe not! — A response from the UN

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in the Geneva Observer, while events in China add a new level of complexity and uncertainty to the world situation, three guest essays:

  • Frequent G|O contributor Daniel Warner writes about the “silent failure” of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regarding Ukraine.
  • Following up on our recent reporting, a piece about Geneva’s contribution to mitigating the tragic impact that landmines are having in Ukraine and elsewhere.
  • Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former Foreign Minister, and Vice-Chancellor sees a new world order being born that may be dominated by a new global ‘pentarchy’: While the United States and China will be the dominant players in the twenty-first century, Europe, Japan, and India will also be able to exercise meaningful influence over large swaths of the planet, he predicts.

And the UN has a lengthy response to last week's piece about the discussions its information service is having with ACANU, the UN correspondents' association.

If Ukraine remains the focus of so much attention, it is because, in addition to the horrendous humanitarian drama, the conflict has caused immense collateral damage across the world, and is leading to realignment in the multilateral system. It is also forcing the West to confront its contradictions and attacks on its values.  

Meanwhile, Western nations, along with several Asian allies, remain by far the largest donors of humanitarian aid globally. Yesterday (November 30), the UN put a new record-breaking $51.5 billion price tag on responding to the global humanitarian crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine. “It’s a phenomenal number and a depressing number,” Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian aid coordinator, said.

According to Griffiths, needs keep rising “because we have been smitten by the war in Ukraine, by COVID, by climate.” The UN projects that 222 million people in 53 countries will face acute food shortages by the end of this year. Five countries are already grappling with famine, and 45 million people across 37 countries are facing the risk of starvation.

Since the beginning of the war, 13 million Ukrainians have received humanitarian aid, and the UN is now seeking an additional $5.7 billion for next year.

As usual, it's all below. Thank you for reading us.



By Daniel Warner

At the Group of Twenty (G20) meeting in Bali, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky castigated the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “Add to [the 11,000 children who were forcibly deported to Russia] hundreds of thousands of deported adults, and you can see what I want to point out, that we have not found support in the International Committee of the Red Cross,” he said by video conference. “We do not see that they are fully fighting for access to the camps where Ukrainian prisoners and political prisoners are held, or that they are helping to find deported Ukrainians,” he further criticized.

Zelensky finished this part of his speech with a most powerful indictment against the institution legally and morally responsible for assuring respect for international humanitarian law (IHL): “Such self-elimination is the self-destruction of the Red Cross as an organization that was once respected.”

“Self-destruction” of the “once respected” ICRC? Zelensky’s accusations conflated Russia’s violations of humanitarian law with the role of the ICRC as the guarantor of IHL. The ICRC’s silence in the face of egregious violations has once more called into question the institution’s insistence on discretion and confidentiality.

An embarrassing silence

Why has the ICRC not been more vocal about grave human rights and IHL violations in Ukraine?

For background: When countries sign the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of humanitarian law, they pledge to “Respect and Enforce” standards for how wars are conducted. Today, the four 1949 Conventions have been ratified by 196 states, including all United Nations Member States. The USSR ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1954.

The Russians use the unsubstantiated excuse of fighting against an “existential threat” in self-defense as their justification for their aggression. In addition to violating universally accepted norms of justifying going to war—jus ad bellum—the Russian Federation continues to violate basic rules of human rights in fighting the war—jus in bello. A report by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights covering the period February 1, 2022 to July 31, 2022, based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, “verified allegations of arbitrary deprivation of life, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment, and conflict-related sexual violence.” Ukraine has also been accused of serious human rights violations.

Russia’s deliberate and systematic destruction of Ukraine’s water and electricity infrastructure, as well as their attacks on hospitals and schools that have killed civilians, are blatant examples of human rights and IHL violations. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is a basic principle of international humanitarian law, as is the distinction between military and non-military targets.

Zelensky’s criticism of the ICRC relates to the organization’s lack of determination to visit Ukrainian military prisoners. The Russians have not allowed access to captured Ukrainians. In response, Zelensky has stopped ICRC access to Russian prisoners held by Ukraine. “Prisoners of war on both sides have the right to visits,” said a spokesperson for the ICRC, “and their families have the right to receive news of them.”

The ICRC, in short, has not been able to enforce norms as they are being transgressed. It does not have sanction power like the World Trade Organization. It does, however, have moral authority. The ICRC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944 and 1963. That moral authority can be used in discreet negotiations or public condemnation. Since discreet negotiations have yielded no positive results, why has the ICRC not been vocal in criticizing Russia or Ukraine?

Naming and shaming

The ICRC’s prudence in not going public has unfortunate precedents, such as its silence about the Holocaust during World War II or about the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in the early stages of the Iraq war. The ICRC can, when faced with repeated violations, go public in the interest of the victims. It did go public about violations by Israel in the Occupied Territories and by different groups during the war in Yugoslavia. When bilateral negotiations fail, it can name and shame.

If you think naming and shaming is not important, consider how China lobbied to convince a majority of members of the UN Human Rights Council not to follow-up on the initial report on the repression of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province: Countries do not like to be called out by respected international institutions such as the Red Cross.

Why hasn’t the ICRC been more vocal now? During revelations about the illegal treatment of prisoners by American forces at Abu Ghraib, the then president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, defended the silence by emphasizing how going public would hamper the Red Cross’s access to prisoners in other countries. Amid strong internal debate, Kellenberger chose silence over public condemnation; access over naming and shaming.

The ICRC policy of silence appears to continue in the face of serious violations in Ukraine. In her first public statement in Geneva on November 28, the new ICRC President Marion Spoljaric said: “Giving up our confidentiality will reduce our work in other places.” “We are not an advocacy group,” she stated. “Working through our mode of confidentiality, ICRC can support states to hold those who commit international crimes accountable, ensuring that all parties to the conflict are aware of their obligation to investigate and prosecute.” Echoing Kellenberger’s justification for silence in 2003, she said: “I am afraid that if we stop our confidentiality, it will never come back.”

As a veteran ICRC delegate with over 30 years in the field whispered to me while listening to Ms. Spoljaric’s comments: “It is very sad that the ICRC does not use all the means it has to act. The silence is incomprehensible.” Indeed, the ICRC’s silence is not helping the innocent victims or respect for humanitarian law.

It is both an institutional and a humanitarian failure.

*A frequent contributor to The G|O, Dr. Daniel Warner is a foreign policy expert and a former deputy director of The Graduate Institute in Geneva.


By Stefano Toscano*

Co-organized by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), Germany, and Switzerland, the Donor Coordination Workshop for Mine Action in Ukraine took place this week in Geneva. This technical gathering brought more than 80 national and international actors to the table with Ukrainian officials to build a shared understanding of needs and priorities.

The recent liberation of Kherson came as a stark reminder of the danger posed by landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive ordnance (EO) littered across Ukraine. The current hostilities add to legacy contamination dating back to Soviet-era firing ranges and the two World Wars. Currently, an estimated 14.6 million people are at risk, and urgent action is required to prevent accidents and save lives.

To date, Ukrainian authorities report that they have already located, recorded, and removed over 256,000 mines and explosive devices, as well as surveying 73,000 hectares of land. Ukraine’s Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA), developed by the GICHD, is receiving new information daily on explosive ordnance identified, areas surveyed, and ongoing risk education activities.

Though humanitarian demining efforts are already taking place, the scope of work that can be done is limited. Humanitarian action, however, can and must be undertaken to protect civilians. Two areas of activity are particularly critical in this respect: First, the timely collection, management, and sharing of information on contaminated areas, to guide emergency humanitarian demining and lay the ground for speedy clearance activities once the conflict ceases. Second, risk education for civilians a life-saving activity in emergency contexts, especially where large population movements increase exposure and vulnerability to explosive threats.

Bridging national needs and international support for responsive mine action in Ukraine

Behind the increase in mine action activities in Ukraine has been an increase in funding over several months. Coordination between the Ukrainian national authorities, funders, international organizations, and mine action NGOs and operators is more important than ever to address quickly evolving needs.

Urgently mapping risks for targeted action that saves lives

Drawing on a decade of GICHD support to Ukraine, I can attest to the power of working hand-in-hand with the national authorities and local and international partners to ensure that the required institutional set-up, solid mine action programs, and the necessary funding provide the basis for safe, speedy and cost-efficient operations tailored to local needs.

Social media can help demining efforts

A concrete example is the Mine Action Information Management cell, which acts as a hub, gathering data from a variety of national and international sources, including social media. This data is shared across key partners, from national authorities and UN agencies to mine action operators working on the ground. Access to up-to-date data helps authorities prioritize and target resources to pressing humanitarian demining needs, making further life-saving possible.

This level of collaboration is built on solid foundations between the Ukrainian government and the local and international mine action community. It is a key tenet of mine action that national authorities must take charge of their own programs. The GICHD continues to support increased mine action capacity in Ukraine by providing advice and training for national authorities and operators in the country, based on identified needs. It’s clear that the training programs are in high demand, with the majority of participants traveling from other areas of the country, despite challenging circumstances. We are humbled by this dedication.

Reaching civilians at risk

With the ongoing fighting, explosive ordnance contamination in Ukraine continues to increase, posing a threat to civilians’ lives and livelihoods. Educating the local population is critical to ensure that men, women, and children receive information that corresponds to their specific needs, thereby promoting safer behaviors and reducing the risk of injury or death.

In Ukraine, the GICHD supports a UN-led working group bringing together actors around the country to coordinate efforts and enhance the quality and impact of the risk education activities being delivered.

“The imperative for all actors to uphold the norm, enshrined in the Convention, against antipersonnel mines—in Ukraine and in every country and territory around the world—must be stressed.”

A treaty that saved lives and remains indispensable

In 1997, a landmark treaty banning antipersonnel mines was adopted and is now in force in 164 States. During the last 25 years, the treaty has saved innumerable lives. More than 50 million antipersonnel mines have been destroyed, more than 30 States are now mine-free, and the international norm against these weapons is well established.

Still, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Mine Ban Treaty, the contamination in Ukraine—as well as in over 60 other countries—serves as an urgent call for renewed commitment, intensified collaboration, and investment that promotes long-term solutions in mine action. The antipersonnel mine ban treaty is—regrettably—more relevant than ever. While new use of antipersonnel mines became rare over the last two decades, it did not disappear, as we have witnessed in Ukraine and other recent and current armed conflicts. The imperative for all actors to uphold the norm, enshrined in the Convention, against antipersonnel mines—in Ukraine and in every country and territory around the world—must be stressed.

The lives, safety, and livelihoods of the 60 million women, men, and children living in areas affected by mines and explosive ordnance depend on it.

*Ambassador Stefano Toscano is Director of the GICHD


Following our report last week on the guidelines about press access to the UN in Geneva being discussed between the organization's information services and the UN Geneva Press Correspondents' association (ACANU), we received this response late today from UN press spokesperson Allesandra Velluci. While standing by our reporting, we publish it here in extenso. It has been slightly edited for clarity.

I was quite shocked when I read your story on the working draft of the access guidelines to the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), published by The Geneva Observer on 24 November 2022.
You attributed to us the intention to reduce the ability of journalists to work at UNOG. This is a biased interpretation of a working document whose aim is, on the contrary, to protect the work of accredited correspondents at the Palais des Nations by setting up clear rules defined with the support of journalists’ representatives.
As clearly stated in the draft guidelines, the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) and Security make every effort to facilitate the work of journalists, including under special circumstances and during events. Nothing in the draft guidelines will modify “the free circulation of certified professional journalists on the UN Geneva campus,” and your statement that this would be “a setback to a healthy and transparent discussion on how the UN operates” is totally unfair. No privileges will be lost with the updated guidelines, as you pretend (and is the word privilege the right one, I wonder?), and "Smaller outfits and freelancers, including many from the developing world" will not have their access reduced, contrary to what you state. We do not make distinctions among journalists on the basis of the size of their media.
The reason for updating the guidelines is simply to reflect the new setting of the Palais des Nations following the renovation works. Changes do not introduce new elements or conditions to access for journalists. The two categories of resident and non-resident journalists (a distinction which also exists in New York) with their different access, were discussed with ACANU more than a year ago and have been in force ever since. At the time, the decision was taken to facilitate the life of correspondents, as it allowed journalists in Geneva who do not regularly come to the Palais to have an annual accreditation, thereby avoiding the need to request it for single events. Nothing in the new draft changes the current situation.
Furthermore, nothing will come into force without consultation with your representatives, and obviously not today. The document you used as a “source” has already been amended in several parts following constructive comments from your colleagues, including on the issue of offices and booths. And it is unfair to extrapolate from a working, evolving document and attribute to our services the intention of damaging media activities.
Our services work hard every day to support and facilitate the work of accredited journalists at the Palais des Nations, and their commitment and professionalism must be respected. I am saddened and angered by your statements, also on behalf of my colleagues who strive daily to create the best working conditions for the UN Geneva press corps. Everyone has the right to write what they want, but there should be a minimum of truthfulness and good faith in every published story, otherwise, it amounts to misinformation and fake news.


By Joschka Fischer*

We are witnessing an unprecedented confluence of major and minor crises. From the COVID-19 pandemic, surging energy prices, and the return of inflation in developed and developing economies, to fractured supply chains, Russia’s criminal war in Ukraine, and climate change, many of these crises are signs not just of decay but of a new world order being born.

As the remnants of the twentieth century’s bipolar order finally disappear, a new global pentarchy is coming to the fore. The United States and China – this century’s two military, technological, and economic superpowers – will be the dominant players, but Europe, Japan, and India will exercise meaningful influence over large swaths of the planet.

A big question mark hangs over Russia, because its future status, capacities, and strategic posture will depend on the outcome of its reckless war of aggression. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has clung desperately to the past, seeking to recreate the twentieth or even the late nineteenth century. But with its catastrophically misguided effort to destroy Ukraine, it ultimately is destroying itself.

A Russian military defeat in Ukraine is already a certainty – a matter of when, not if. But it is still far too early to foretell the likely consequences. Will Putin’s regime survive, or will Russia’s defeat usher in another phase of internal decay and disintegration. Until that question is resolved, we cannot yet know whether Russia will try to maintain its old claim to hegemony in Eastern Europe and much of Eurasia.

If the Kremlin is forced to abandon that claim, its role as a world power would probably be over. To be sure, even a decrepit, humiliated Russia, rather than going into geopolitical hibernation, would most likely remain a major source of instability in the new world order, and especially on the European continent. But it is now clear that Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal is no longer sufficient to secure its geopolitical status in the twenty-first century. Its economy is being decisively weakened as the rest of the world moves to phase out fossil fuels – the backbone of the Russian economy.

Whereas Russia poses new risks because of its fragility and decay, China will do so by dint of its increasing wealth and might. Owing to the massive wave of globalization that began in the early 2000s, China managed to lift itself out of poverty and position itself to achieve high-income status. And with the 2008 financial crisis partly discrediting the West, China has been able to expand its own global leadership role and present itself as a global superpower alongside the US.

Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, however, China has not made the mistake of focusing solely on its military power. On the contrary, its global rise reflects its embrace of integration into US- and Western-dominated world markets by serving as the world’s “extended workbench,” while investing heavily in competing with the West on the technological and scientific frontiers. The Chinese certainly have not held back on military investment, but they have not allowed spending on defense and security to crowd out everything else. The defining difference between China and Russia today is that, unlike Putin, the Chinese leadership has been living in the twenty-first century for quite some time.

The recent G20 summit in Bali laid bare this fundamental difference of outlook and purpose. Whereas Russia found itself diplomatically isolated, China was central to all the discussions and the shaping of the final communiqué. Though they have not adopted the Western line on the Ukraine crisis, large countries such as China and India used the occasion to distance themselves noticeably from the Kremlin, decrying its war policy and nuclear threats. If the in-person talks between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping help to deflate Sino-American tensions, the Bali summit will have opened the door to reshaping international relations in the twenty-first century.

The outcome of the US midterm election offers yet another reason for hope, as the widely anticipated Republican “red wave” failed to materialize. The GOP failed to take the Senate and only barely secured a majority in the House of Representatives. As in 2018 and 2020, former President Donald Trump once again held his party back. Most Americans do not want a return to his “America first” isolationist policies.

Together, the US midterms and the Bali summit offer cause for optimism at an otherwise fraught moment. But we will need much more progress toward global cooperation. Ultimately, our two biggest crises – Russia’s retrograde war in Ukraine and climate change – can be overcome only if the world’s key powers find a way to work together.

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Daniel Warner

Guest essays: Ambassador Stefano Toscano - Joschka Fischer

Edited by: Dan Wheeler