The Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta discusses the dangers of providing aid in a volatile age

Baron Albrecht von Boeselager’s sad expression and world-weary tone hardly disguise his controlled anger at events in Syria and Iraq.

The Grand Chancellor of the Sovereign Order of Malta is the organisation’s foreign and internal minister, and has a long experience of humanitarian crises provoked by man-made conflicts and natural disasters. But for him, what is happening in Syria and Iraq right now is somewhat akin to the Thirty Years’ War.

For those who may have forgotten their history, this particularly brutal 17th century conflict initially began as a religious war with Protestant and Catholic states in Europe fighting each other even though they were (or had been) members of the Holy Roman Empire. The war subsequently developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers of Europe. Entire regions of Europe were devastated and denuded. The war ended only after everybody was exhausted and peace treaties were signed, European borders and spheres of influence redrawn, but some of the disputes that provoked the war went unresolved for much longer.

In Iraq and Syria, he says during a recent visit to London, “there are so many different interests and the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. He might be my enemy.” As was the case in that earlier war, he adds, the structure of the Middle East regions caught in the current conflict is likely to change according to tribes and religion.

The conflict has also put at risk the future of Christian minorities. “That is the real tragedy, to see that centuries, if not a thousand years, of culture in this area can be destroyed within two years forever,” he emphasises. “Christians in Mosul saw their Muslim neighbours turn against them, occupy or burn down their houses, steal their property. This cannot be rebuilt, and this is a dangerous development because this attitude is now attributed to Muslims. I would not be sure whether people of other denominations would have behaved better in similar conditions. Even those who were promoting cooperation with the Muslims are now doubting whether they can work with them for there is a great mistrust between the different groups.”

In the wake of this latest crisis, reviving the guiding principles of humanitarian conduct has become an imperative. After the First and Second World War the international community successfully established a code of humanitarian conduct, a codex of humanitarian laws, Red Cross conventions and United Nations resolutions. But at the end of the last century there was a fast-declining regard for these principles. “And again it is not only the terrorists. It is also the West,” he says. “The drone attacks against so-called signature targets – even they don’t know the person they target – fall into a certain cluster and kill. So the observance of the principles of law come under stress from different sides.”

The Grand Chancellor turns to the Kosovo conflict to give another personal example of this failure.

“I saw a good friend who was a German air force pilot after the Kosovo campaign. He needed the help of a psychotherapist because they were taught and educated as pilots that they should never target something they had not clearly identified. And in Kosovo NATO orders were not to fly below 3,000 metres, and from this altitude it is impossible to distinguish whether a Jeep is a military target or a civilian car. So they had to shoot their missiles according to probability.”

Has the Order of Malta come under attack in its operations in the Middle East’s conflict zones? “We have to distinguish,” he explains.

“In a moderate Muslim environment we don’t face difficulties. On the contrary. In comparison to secular organisations, we are even more welcome because they can read our motivation. They are immediately suspicious of secular organisations, because they do not understand their motivation. People in these situations develop a separate sense of smell whether somebody has a hidden agenda or an agenda that is not consciously hidden but present. The Order of Malta is independent and neutral. We are only there to help. We do not pretend to be better or more clever, but we are independent and objective.”

Through its diplomatic humanitarian network the order has direct contact with governments that help its representatives working in the field. Face-to-face contact, both at the highest level and on the ground amid the populations and refugees under strife, are crucial because, as Baron Boeselager explains, “when you have met these people they know who you are and this gives you protection, because our strength is always to act with a very open agenda, explain what we do, and what we aim to do and to talk with everybody”. Indeed, as long you have people to talk to on the ground you can help, he says. You also have to see the situation through the eyes of the people you are trying to help.

That does not mean that the order has not suffered casualties in its humanitarian activities in conflict areas. First in Vietnam, then in Afghanistan, representatives and workers of the order have been killed. Until now, the order in the latest Middle East conflict has not been a target of fundamentalists, but the Grand Chancellor believes this could happen at any time. The order is currently working in Turkey, Lebanon and Kurdistan, and is running on remote control two mobile clinics in Baghdad which are steered by the order’s Lebanese
association.

The order currently has three expats working in Kurdistan. “We always try to recruit locals or the people from the targeted populations.

So in Turkey on the border, for instance, we run the field hospital with Syrian refugees.” As for Syria and Iraq, the situation is so complex and dangerous right now that direct assistance is difficult, if not impossible. For example, the order is now in close contact with the Church in Syria who have strongly advised it not to send out expats, not only because they do not want to expose them to risks but, more importantly, these expats would expose the people the Church is working with to risks. “Yes, we are still helping in Syria,” he explains, “but through people living in Syria who cross the border into Turkey to bring goods to Syria and other channels.”
In many parts of Iraq, the situation is much too dangerous. “It is not only dangerous because you could become a target. Much more is the danger of falling between the lines,” he says.

Syria and Iraq have inevitably been grabbing the spotlight but such emergencies are only a fraction of the work the order undertakes. “We are active now in 120 countries with bigger and smaller operations. We have between 80,000 and 100,000 volunteers, and 30,000 or so employees. It has become a big operation whereby the huge proportion of activities is not emergency relief. It involves activities such as our Homes Trust here in England, hospitals in Germany, volunteer organisations, social aid, first aid and care for the elderly, the homeless, the handicapped, but the limelight is always on conflicts and disasters.”

That said, one should not underestimate the order’s achievements in conflict and disaster zones. Take Iran: “The last time we were there was after the severe earthquake. We were surprised how well they were organised and how unideological. In the aftermath of the earthquake when the first phase of aid was over we were asked by the local government to coordinate all the NGOs and to train new local NGOs. We were astonished.”

There are many other examples. “In one African country our ambassador discovered in the central prison there was no separation between men and women. You can imagine what happened. And on one side, the government did not care and, on the other side, they were ashamed so they did not let anybody in to see it. But they trusted our ambassador and allowed him to build a wall just across the middle of the prison to separate men and women and, in addition, to build a small clinic. And this was only possible because he had direct contact to the prime minister and they saw he was not a dependent of anybody and did not have to report to any other national or international body.”

One last example. “In the last Lebanon war our ambassador negotiated the release of more than 1,000 hostages. The European papers were full of the stories of the western hostages but not of the Lebanese hostages. And he went with his diplomatic car into the battlefield in the Beqaa Valley to take the injured out and he was not attacked by either side.” All these examples are small pieces, says the order’s Grand Chancellor in his understated way, “but they underline how we work”.

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald (17/10/14)

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