By Abdulkareem Haruna
The Public Relations Officer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Abuja, Aliyu Dawabe, has said his organisation has no sympathy for any armed opposition group (AOG) including the dreaded Boko Haram.
The agency is one of the numerous foreign outfits carrying out humanitarian interventions in the war-ravaged North-east Nigeria.
Mr Dawabe said the majority of Nigerians, who have not acquainted themselves with the workings of the ICRC “whose operation, the world-over, is backed by the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), have misconstrued the insistence of the Red Cross’s neutrality in the ongoing counterinsurgency as some kind of sympathy for the Boko Haram.”
The IHL, otherwise known as the Law of Armed Conflict, empowers the Red Cross to provide medical and related humanitarian services to all casualties on either side of the war, he explained.
Before now, there have been allegations that the Red Cross has been ‘sympathetic’ to the Boko Haram fighters to whom, they reportedly provide medical services.
Though the ICRC officials have not been physically attacked, they have been verbally assaulted even during public functions.
Mr Dawabe, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES during a training on ‘Conflict Reporting and First Aid Administration’ for journalists in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, said such allegations “were spread out of public ignorance about the workings of the Red Cross.”
“We have heard allegations of us helping the armed opposition group and so on and so forth but I guess this is a good platform for me to mention that the ICRC, being a neutral organisation, we don’t assist people that are fighting,” he said.
“What we do is to try to get them engaged in understanding the law of armed conflict so that they should be able to respect civilians, they should be able to respect women and children and all public places as well as healthcare facilities. So in this, we have continued to get all the actors to the conflict engaged, which include even the Nigerian army.
“Of course we had perceptions of people talking about us as helping the opposition armed group (Boko Haram). But as a neutral organisation, to be very candid, we don’t do that. What we do is to try to respect the international humanitarian law; it is our job to promote the IHL, which clearly stipulates that a combatant is not assisted as long as he or she is still a combatant.
“But then, as soon as one is injured, the IHL has granted such a person privileges to have access to health, access to food and for the family to know where he or she is. So this is why we keep talking to people to understand that the ICRC is generally out to assist people affected by armed conflict or related violence and not to assist a particular group of people,” he explained.
He said one of the main challenges of the ICRC is getting all sides to understand the IHL and what it stands for.
According to him, it is not easy to get the armed opposition groups like the Boko Haram to a forum where “they could be made to understand what law of armed conflict is all about”.
“When we have access to all the actors to the conflict, we do promote this law of armed conflict by reminding them what it is all about,” he said.
“But if we don’t have access, which makes it very difficult for us to do that; then we make a general call to all the parties to the conflict to understand our neutrality and our impartiality in giving assistance.
“And we also make them understand the need for them to respect us, respect our personnel to be able to gain access and support communities that are affected; and also to respect these communities. Civilians, hospitals, schools and all public places are not supposed to be targets.
“The law says even if the conflict is going on, there are limits.”
He said that was why the selected journalists who attended the three days training were also trained to understand the working of the ICRC in relation to the Law of Armed Conflict.
“We have also talked about how the IHL protects the journalists in terms of discharging their duties as reporters in conflict zones,” he added.
“The IHL also protects the media practitioners for two reasons; the first is because journalists are civilians and two, because they are professionals reporting on humanitarian stories.”
Participants at the training were issued certificates after being drilled in various practical sessions on first aid during emergencies.