Francesco Rocca: “Crises are not resolved by sending food to cleanse our conscience” | International


Tutti Fratelli (All Brothers) is the motto that guides the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the largest volunteer humanitarian network in the world. Its president, Francesco Rocca (Rome, 57 years old) believes that those two words contain an ethic. By phone from Geneva, this Italian lawyer reminded EL PAÍS last Wednesday who coined that motto. It was not Henry Dunant, the Swiss philanthropist who founded the Red Cross after the battle of Solferino, in 1859, but the women of that town and another town in northern Italy, Castiglione, who helped some of the 38,000 soldiers who lay behind that fight dead, dying or wounded. Many were Austrians; they were the enemy, but that “all brothers” was stronger, emphasizes Rocca. That “spirit of recognizing the humanity of all people” is the message that the president of the IFRC aspires to convey this week in New York to the powerful of this world, gathered at the 77th UN General Assembly. And he urgently needs to do it, he maintains, because the world is facing an “unprecedented” crisis, which requires “systemic changes” in the way of dealing with it.

Ask. Why does the Red Cross speak of an “unprecedented” crisis?

Response. To start with the figures, which are enormous. When we speak today of the food crisis, we are referring to 140 million people who face a very strong food insecurity. In the Horn of Africa, there are 22 million people who are at risk of starvation. And that because of conflicts, climate-related emergencies, economic difficulties and political obstacles. This situation has been further aggravated because these conflicts make access difficult for humanitarian workers, who come under attack when trying to help victims. Added to this are increasingly extreme phenomena, such as climate change, desertification and drought in Africa. For all these reasons, this situation is unprecedented.

P. Are crises multiplying?

R. I do not remember a period with such enormous challenges for the [trabajadores] humanitarians. We came out of two years of covid; with catastrophes such as the floods in Pakistan. In Syria there are six million displaced people who lack everything. Wars like those in Yemen and Tigray (Ethiopia) and, of course, Ukraine, persist. I could enumerate a very long list of crises, which we only aggravate or think that they are resolved by sending food and tents and thus clearing our consciences. And we humanitarian workers feel a certain frustration. So many years after movements like the We are the world (1985) for the famine in Ethiopia, we are still in the same countries, with the same situation and in a much more serious global context, when today we have the technological capacity to anticipate many of these crises and intervene preventively so as not to attend to the disasters that are taking place. We can predict the magnitude of a cyclone, drought, famine. And the data tells us that when this has been done judiciously, many lives have been saved.

P. And why is it not done?

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R. Political will is lacking. It is shameful that, decades later, in these areas there have been no long-term structural interventions, nor have the socio-environmental conditions been created to create the conditions for what is called resilience, the basic conditions that allow resistance to disasters. On climate change, we must be aware of the price we will pay for our inaction, not only us but future generations. I believe, however, that what prevails are the political interests of the moment, which, in an increasingly polarized world, are not those that are in the general interest.

P. Has the reception of the Ukrainian refugees shown that, when there is this political will, it is possible to help the victims?

R. The response of Western countries to the population movements in Ukraine shows that when there is political will and the media continue to pay attention to human lives, the result is positive and there is a capacity for solidarity and empathy. But the treatment of victims should not be like a soccer tournament, where there is a first league and a second league. There cannot be series A victims and others series B.

Q.Migrants killed in the Mediterranean are class B victims?

R. We make a humanitarian reading of what is happening in the Mediterranean; that is, the obligation to save lives. Each country has the right to manage its borders, no one disputes this, but the truth is that, in Europe, we have problems saving lives and organizing humanitarian corridors to give security to people who have the right to protection, according to the laws of international law. And I repeat, we do not make a political reading of what happens to migrants, because here no one is saved. With governments of the left and the right, in European countries there are detention centers for migrants. States have the right to protect their borders, we do not discuss it. What we criticize is the inhumane treatment, the lack of dignity, which is taken from so many people, the depersonalization, the dehumanization.

P. You have said “behind the figures, there are real people”.

R. When you ask, when you sit down to talk with them, you see their human condition. Behind every disappeared person in the Mediterranean, there is a mother, a father, a daughter, someone who is waiting for news. We must put the human being back in the center. And I see that we are losing this capacity. Even in the choice of words. When a migrant arrives in our countries, regardless of his circumstances, whether he has the right to international protection or not, he is labeled illegal. And this definition prevails over the identity of the person, who has a story behind it that we do not know. The role of the media, which can tell the stories behind the numbers, is essential in this. The discourse of humanity is not rhetorical for us. And a symbol of that speech is that wonderful hug that that poor girl, a Spanish Red Cross volunteer, [Luna Reyes] gave that young African who was crying on the beach in Ceuta [Abdou, un migrante senegalés que después fue expulsado a Marruecos] and for which they covered her with insults. That hug shows our willingness to recognize the human being who is currently living a nightmare. And we would like that not to be lost.

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