ICRC’s biased attitude towards Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society offers its assistance (OPINION)

by Roza Bayramli

The Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society issued a statement on August 22nd expressing its willingness to deliver humanitarian aid needed by the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan. According to the statement of the organization, its employees and volunteers are ready to provide the necessary support in the transportation of food, medicine, clothing and other supplies to Armenian residents of the Karabakh region along the Aghdam-Khankendi road. It is also noted in the statement that the initiative of the organization fully complies with the requirements of national legislation and the Geneva Conventions, as well as the corresponding amendment made in 2022 to the Seville Agreement of 1997, according to which the leading role in the implementation of humanitarian assistance is assigned to National Societies. The initiative is a direct response to a biased campaign around the humanitarian needs of the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region run by foreign interests.

The needs of the Armenians in Karabakh are currently met with the help of the Russian peacekeeping contingent stationed in the region and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who run their operations from the Yerevan office, despite the fact that jurisdiction of Azerbaijan over the territories once occupied by Armenia had been restored 3 years prior, and who send residents of the region of Armenian nationality that need medical support to Armenia for treatment. In contempt of ICRC’s stated mandate of neutrality, its activities in the region are anything but impartial.

Since the establishment of a border crossing point (BCP) on the state border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, no obstacles have been created for the movement of vehicles belonging to the ICRC subject to proper border and customs control. However, the State Border Service of Azerbaijan revealed repeated attempts to smuggle various types of contraband illegally on vehicles belonging to the organization. A criminal case was initiated under the relevant articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and until the necessary investigative measures were taken, the crossing through the Lachin BCP at the state border was temporarily suspended. In response, representatives of the organization put forward a farcical claim that the cars in which the contraband was transported did not belong to the organization, but were rented from local residents.

This fact is not the only evidence of the biased attitude of the ICRC. The organization has shown reluctance to search for 3,890 Azerbaijanis who went missing during the First Karabakh War, ignoring the stated goal of the ICRC's mission of finding out the fate of missing people. Azerbaijan has repeatedly publicly called on Armenia to provide information about missing persons and locations of mass graves, but officials in Yerevan refuse to share their knowledge.

Since the end of the Second Karabakh War 3 years prior, the remains of about 500 people were found in mass graves in Shusha, Aghdam, Khojavend, Khojaly, Fizuli and Kalbajar districts. The last such discovery took place this month on the territory of the Shusha prison. During the excavations carried out there on August 1-15, remains belonging to 17 individuals were discovered. As the ICRC does not participate in the search for missing Azerbaijani citizens, this activity is carried out solely by Azerbaijan. The ICRC’s own effort began and ended with the collection of samples of biomaterials from relatives of the missing for supposed subsequent verification. The excuse for the subsequent inaction shifted over time from obstruction by the Armenian forces to the lack of resources of the organization. Failing to find a single mass grave in the former occupied territories of Azerbaijan, the ICRC nonetheless managed to collect the bodies of 1,700 Armenian soldiers in a short period of time at the end of the Second Karabakh War.

Furthermore, there are reasonable suspicions that the ICRC is acting as an intelligence tool for Armenia. During both the First and Second Karabakh Wars, the committee staff reportedly collected and passed on information that could be subject to military secrecy to the Armenian government. In fact, two of the ICRC’s Lebanese employees have been allegedly declared persona non grata in Azerbaijan for divulging confidential data – an event for which the organization has failed to provide a reasonable explanation.

Another way by which the ICRC inserted itself politically in the conflict on the side of Armenia was during the 44-day War, when its employees tried to create obstacles to the offensives of the Azerbaijani army in the directions of Fizuli and Lachin.

The ICRC states in its mandate that interference in internal political processes is completely contrary to the mandate of the organization, a position gleefully ignored by the ICRC employees who visited criminals arrested after the riots in Ganja in 2018 that resulted in the killing of two policemen, and advised them to go on a hunger strike and apply to the French embassy to escape due process in Azerbaijan.

The ICRC was founded and in headquartered in Switzerland, and the organization can hardly be expected to ignore the interests of its domicile. Further eating away at any claims of impartiality, a sobering report was published in July 2017 on behalf of and commissioned by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, which concluded that close contacts between Switzerland and political bodies and structures within the ICRC do not allow open and honest discussions about the real state of affairs in this organization, and, moreover, the Swiss MFA is often perceived globally as little more than the "administrative resource" of the ICRC. In particular, the report criticizes the fact that Switzerland transfers 80 million francs from its budget to the ICRC annually with the goal of supporting Geneva as an international humanitarian and diplomatic center, which undoubtedly implies certain expectations placed upon the ICRC by Bern. Historian Beatrice Veyrassat, one of the report's co-authors, notes that since its inception, the ICRC has been at the crossroads of Swiss humanitarian, economic and political interests, with the Swiss export-oriented industry benefiting most directly from cooperation with the ICRC.

Since its founding, the ICRC has maintainedclose ties to Swiss political and business circles, constantly exchanging knowledge, experience and, most importantly, personnel. Calling in 1965 for the government to increase its allocations to the ICRC budget, one of the leading experts of the Swiss Foreign Ministry said that the ICRC never had any secrets from the Swiss government, whose representatives were always present in its administrative bodies.

The organization has also been criticized by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was outraged by the lack of action by the ICRC to help local populace after the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station (HPP) and the subsequent flood. On March 15, 2022, the mission left Mariupol, abandoning the people without any assistance. This led to the heads of a number of charitable foundations and activists to wrote an open letter criticizing the work of the Committee in Ukraine. Suspicions of misappropriation of funds arise regarding donations to ICRC from organizations such as the fashion brand LVMH ($5 million), the Icelandic food company Marel (€250,000), and the major American retailer Southeast Grocers Inc ($250,000).

The Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is not the first one in which the neutrality of the organization came under scrutiny. In 1999, a Member of the Government of Sierra Leone demanded the ICRC delegates in Freetown to leave the country after the revelationthat the ICRC was using its own communications system to assist the rebels. In 2005, a majority of Republicans in the US Senate held that the agency had lost its impartiality and was defending positions that were contrary to US interests. According to Senate officials, when visiting foreign terrorist suspects held by US troops in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, representatives of the organization compared American soldiers to Nazis and purposefully disclosed confidential reports.

Putting all of the above together, it becomes glaringly obvious that the ICRC, contrary to its claims of neutrality, quietly picks a side to represent in many conflicts in which it chooses to insert itself. On the other hand, the role of the Red Crescent Society is clearly defined by state law and adhered to. The organization has been active for over 100 years and is the largest humanitarian organization in the Republic of Azerbaijan. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff and volunteers of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society distinguished themselves in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, especially the elderly and the sick, as well as low-income families and those experiencing financial hardship. During the Second Karabakh War, the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society continued its humanitarian mission, along with other state institutions, providing humanitarian assistance to injured civilians and carrying out extensive exploratory work in search of maliciously concealed mines. In addition, with the support of the Turkish Red Crescent, large amounts of food, clothing, medicine and other supplies were distributed to those in need.

At the moment, the organization is ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region as Azerbaijan has repeatedly stated that it considers the Armenian residents of Karabakh to be citizens of the country. Nonetheless, the Armenian residents of Karabakh refused any assistance from Azerbaijan, going so far as to try to block the Aghdam-Khankendi road with concrete blocks. The refusal of the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of the assistance of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society only serves as more proof of the provocative and irresponsible political campaign that is being waged in order to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Roza Bayramli, an advisor at the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center), Baku, Azerbaijan, exclusively for News.Az

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