A top International Committee of the Red Cross official expressed confidence Thursday that the United States will remain its top donor, saying the organization is working well with the administration despite President Trump’s push to dramatically cut the budgets for the State Department and foreign aid.
“I’m not worried,” Dominik Stillhart, ICRC director of operations, told The Washington Times in an interview.
While Mr. Stillhart predicted Washington will come through with badly needed aid for international crises such as the cholera epidemic now affecting as many as 1 million people in Yemen, he pushed a sobering message on Syria. He said it is far too soon to return millions of refugees despite the liberation of Islamic State territory there.
He touched on a number of hot-button issues in the interview, including Mr. Trump’s policy shift to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison and the potential for China to play a greater role in backing the world’s leading humanitarian organization.
“There’s still very intense conflict that is going on” in Syria, he said, noting daily fighting in several areas between government troops and opposition forces, as well as near the Turkey border, pitting Turkish forces against Syrian Kurdish groups. The 7-year-old civil war has created one of the world’s largest refugee crises.
“There is a lot of talk of refugee return … [but] it’s really too early,” Mr. Stillhart said. Nations housing masses of Syrian refugees may be under internal political pressure to send them home but should be clear-eyed about moving to quickly, he added.
“People would go back to nothing except destroyed towns and villages, and there is also an incredible amount of unexploded ordnances that have to be cleared before people can come back,” he said. “Most importantly, the return of refugees has to take place in safety and dignity for these people.”
Violence remains so intense in some areas that 1.3 million Syrians were displaced last year alone — far more than the 500,000 who returned home. “You still have a significant net balance of people leaving,” Mr. Stillhart said.
A global appeal
The Swiss-born Red Cross official was in Washington this week as part of his annual funding appeals visits to major donor countries. After the United States, the second-largest is Britain, followed by the European Union, Germany and Switzerland. Some 80 percent of the organization’s nearly $1.8 billion budget comes from that group, along with Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Some of the world’s largest economies, notably China, rank far lower on the list of contributors.
“Our wish is clearly that our donor base becomes more diversified and broader, including indeed, countries that have strong economies, such as China,” said Mr. Stillhart.
Despite Mr. Trump’s “America first” agenda and criticism of some aid programs, Mr. Stillhart said he was confident that the administration would deliver on the traditional $400 million in annual funding to the ICRC. The organization has aid operations in nearly every conflict zone on the planet and is the preeminent organization monitoring the treatment of prisoners of war.
The organization has “strong bipartisan support” in Washington, and there’s “no reason to think this is going to change,” Mr. Stillhart said.
Mr. Stillhart went to lengths in the interview to project the kind of geopolitical neutrality that has defined the ICRC since its founding in Switzerland more than 150 years ago.
He expressed only mild concern about Mr. Trump’s signing this week of an executive order reversing President Obama’s policy and keeping the prison for suspected terrorists open at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Stillhart said he remains wary of “legal limbo” surrounding Guantanamo and its detainees but stressed that the ICRC’s main priority is continued access to prisoners. The organization has made over 100 visits to Guantanamo since 2002.
“Whether they keep the place open or not, this is not for us to make any comments,” he said. “Our concern is about conditions and treatment.”
Mr. Trump called Tuesday for Guantanamo, which is holding fewer than 50 prisoners — down from a high of nearly 800 a decade ago — to remain open indefinitely and to take in more detainees captured in the fight against foreign terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda. While rights organizations slammed the move, Mr. Stillhart said Mr. Trump’s executive order provided “clarity and predictability” on Guantanamo’s future.
But he acknowledged another area of potential friction with Washington.
Over the past year, a key piece of the Trump administration’s strategy against the Islamic State involved a push to loosen Obama-era restrictions on the number of civilian casualties that might be caused by U.S. airstrikes. While the loosening could give U.S. commanders a freer hand, human rights advocates say, it could dramatically worsen humanitarian conditions in the war zone.
Mr. Stillhart said it’s a “matter of concern” to the ICRC and an issue that the organization is discussing behind the scenes “at the highest level” with the Pentagon. While he declined to comment further, he said it’s a “policy we are monitoring very carefully.”
Born in 1964, Mr. Stillhart has spent more than two decades with the ICRC and carries the patina of one who is no stranger to working in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.
During the interview, he emphasized the ICRC’s unique role, having to deal with both governments and sometimes with unsavory armed factions — necessary to preserve access in unstable places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Nigeria.
A surge in violent attacks on aid workers during recent years has caused the ICRC to scale back operations in some areas. But Mr. Stillhart said the organization remains resolute in its policy of never using armed guards to protect its staff.
“If we cannot work without armed protection, we don’t work,” he said, even if it means the agency’s mission is under increasing threat in some regions.
Last year alone, 10 ICRC employees were killed in conflict zones — seven in Afghanistan alone. In response, the ICRC closed one medical facility in northern Afghanistan and reduced staff at two others, although Mr. Stillhart insisted this is not the same as abandoning the country altogether.
“We redraw a little with the idea to go back as quickly as possible,” he said, noting that battlefields around the world have changed drastically since he began his career in Africa in the 1990s.
Where the ICRC once engaged in negotiations with two sides of any war, Mr. Stillhart said, the organization is increasingly confronted with fractured conflicts characterized by “hundreds if not thousands of warring parties.”
Last year, the organization was party to negotiations that released 82 schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria. The girls were among some 276 originally kidnapped in 2014, which spawned the global “Bring Back Our Girls” social media campaign.
More broadly, Mr. Stillhart lamented the increasingly militarized foreign policy of some of the world’s leading nations, asserting that many in the post-9/11 era have become too easily drawn to violent counterterrorism policies that ignore the more nuanced challenges behind several of the world’s conflicts.
He predicted that terrorism and extremism will remain major problems if governments fail to match military power with a determination to address social and political grievances.
“Fighting terrorism is important,” he said, “but if it’s not accompanied by a more comprehensive strategy … it’s just not going to work.”