Reading the sex scandals conducted by Oxfam personnel in Haiti I remembered past reports implicating UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, but it also raised more personal concerns, tied to my recent experience working for ICRC in Myanmar and then in Congo. The responses given by those implicated in the scandals often makes us believe that what is under scrutiny is the misconduct of particular individuals in an otherwise functioning and well-intentioned industry. Every activity, public or private, tends to get evaluated according to its own results. After a year and a half with ICRC in Myanmar and in the Democratic Republic of Congo I quit the organization despite its high salary and lucrative benefits. The reason is, simply, that we did nothing.
The first part of the article was published by Myanmar Times. Due to pressures from ICRC’s Public Relations Department the newspaper cancelled the publication of the rest of the article.
After years of teaching in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sierra Leone and after having visited and reported from several African war zones, I decided to join the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Reasons for my decision included a desire to increase my income, on the one hand, but also an urge to understand the humanitarian sector and the dynamics of modern conflict better. With a starting salary at 6000 CHF per month and several training sessions in luxurious hotels and resorts, the job seemed ideal, at least in the beginning.
My first mission was in Northern Myanmar as a Field Delegate for ICRC. I arrived energetic. Thereafter, travelling to the field most of the time, I held the task of collecting information regarding violations of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), perpetrated by the Myanmar Military and/or the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Initially, time seemed to pass very fast, and adrenaline was at its highest. We ran up and down in our comfortable land cruiser, discussing the IHL with actual victims of war. But then, in the middle of my mission with 6 months still to go, I started wondering what the purpose of our activities was. What do we do with the information we collect and for what reason do we spend this amount of money? Who, if anyone, benefits from our actions? We had collected several — and serious — IHL-violation allegations from civilian victims but the armed groups were not willing to discuss with us, and we were not so keen in trying to reach them. Each and every one of us seemed content with the idea that it is the army who is not willing to talk to us and, so, convinced ourselves that it’s not our fault that nothing was being done. But then we kept collecting IHL violations from the victims, despite the fact that we well knew we couldn’t do anything about them. For what reason then? It was merely a way to sustain our careers. A reason to look busy.
Week after week, I returned to several villages inquiring about civilians’ treatment by the military. And admittedly, this became an increasingly difficult challenge for me. I had documented numerous IHL violations, but I now knew that we were not able to do something about these victims. We talked to families whose relatives had been shot by this armed group or the other. Then, we went back to the same villages and asked the same questions. We were not in a position to suggest anything to them to improve their lives, and we provided nothing to them. All we did was make notes of the violations, over and over again.
I can use two cases as examples: We were discussing with families that had their children abducted by KIA (Kachin Independence Army). We pretended that would bring them back in order to get the information, but then did nothing. My supervisor refused to try to discuss with the armed group for both cases.
Second, in a village affected by war we were asked to meet a very simple demand: to provide them with a stretcher for their ambulance. But a year passed, and we didn’t manage to deliver it. It seems to me now that the whole purpose of our presence was to write reports and send emails, and this made me feel shame. We were not honoring our responsibilities. As for the areas to which we gave ‘priority’, again we proved to be inadequate. We worked mainly in the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons’) camps where tens of similar international NGOs were also present.
In effect, we all helped Myanmar’s policy-makers who wanted these people removed from their communities and locked up in a camp. And we were supposed to bring the required supplies an provisions.But even in this simple task, we failed; for in one year’s stay in Kachin our plans to construct several water pumps in the camps failed. Not one pump managed to bring water to the displaced — meanwhile we were all getting paid.
Moreover, humanitarian organizations had an ambivalent relationship with the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. ICRC in particular preferred working with the previous Military government because they were giving us better access. Higher ICRC officials were discussing this quite publicly. Probably Aung San Suu Kyi was not buying our lies. The state counsellor did not appreciate ICRC because she remembered our inactions in her own case when she was a political prisoner.