Neutrality and independence in the fight against Ebola
”In the early stages of the Ebola virus disease outbreak, as the Liberian Red Cross Society [LRCS] took over the safe and dignified burials service, we had a real challenge in the area of neutrality and the use of the emblem,” says Neima Candy, national Ebola virus disease coordinator for the LRCS. “When we first took over the service from the Ministry of Health, we inherited a policy of armed escorts for safety.”
This posed a serious challenge for the team because even in areas of violence and armed conflict, staff and volunteers of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement avoid using escorts from police or armed forces because the practice contradicts the Fundamental Principles of neutrality and independence. These principles aim to ensure that people understand these workers are not associated with any political, military or security agenda and that their motivations are purely humanitarian.
“The challenge was that we could not automatically change the policy. Because the government had been running the safe and dignified burials service, and at that time we were only supporting them, we couldn’t change the rules straightaway. Therefore, we weren’t able to use our emblem on the vehicles. And because we weren’t visibly Red Cross, the trust in the community, which understands our neutrality, just wasn’t there. As a result, we experienced continued aggression.
“In Liberia, the Red Cross has long-standing community respect because during the war (1999–2003), the Red Cross was providing burials. So people know that we take care of this service. But because they couldn’t see we were the Red Cross and neutral, the existing mistrust (of government and health authorities), along with the rumours about Ebola, meant that people often didn’t trust us and refused to let us do our job. Community members were saying, ‘You people are saying you are Red Cross but we are not seeing a red cross’.
“Sometimes they would even fight, which was a concern for the immediate safety of our volunteers. It was also a concern for contagion because if they’ve come in contact with the bodies and then touch the volunteers it’s going to cause chaos.”
What would you do in this situation? How would you convince communities that you are neutral and at the same time convince the police to discontinue the escorts so that you can offer services under the Red Cross emblem?
In dealing with the dilemma posed by obligatory police escorts, Candy says her team looked at this issue from two angles. “Firstly, we wanted to let the people know that we were Red Cross and why we weren’t using our emblem,” she says. “So we increased our social mobilization efforts, especially in communities where we had had resistance. We raised awareness about why we were picking up bodies and the risks associated with bodies remaining in their homes and about how to avoid coming in contact with bodily fluids. Finally, we also raised awareness that even though we came in unmarked cars, this was a Red Cross team.
“The second element was negotiating with the police. At first, they insisted that they must accompany us. Then we started having some cooperation, so we suggested that we do a trial run, collecting bodies without the armed escort. Because we didn’t have any resistance when we went out with just the emblem, the police agreed to stop coming. As we had been scaling up and taking on more responsibility, we were better able to engage with them gradually and diplomatically change the armed-escort policy.
“Neutrality was central in making our decision, but because we had inherited government teams who didn’t have a Red Cross background, we had to work hard to brief those teams on the principle of impartiality. For instance, sometimes the teams would get a call that there was a body to pick up in their area, and it was sometimes difficult to teach some team members that they couldn’t prioritize that pick-up over others.”
As told to Anita Dullard, IFRC communications specialist.