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Geneva-based organisation a geopolitical tool of Russia, says report

A Swiss media investigation has uncovered more details about the extent of the Russian dominance of the Geneva-based International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).

According to Swiss public media RTS, which published a report on Tuesday in collaboration with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the ICDO has been essentially “swallowed up” by Russian interests.

Picking up on a previous story from 2018, RTS got hold of internal ICDO documents showing that between 2014 and 2018 almost CHF140 million ($147 million) of funding arrived in the organisation’s coffers from Moscow – money then channelled into humanitarian projects “almost exclusively” run by Russian operators.

Projects included sending fire engines to North Korea and Nicaragua, rescue material to Cuba, as well as projects in pro-Russia separatist regions such as Abkhazia and Ossetia, RTS wrote.

The stated aim of the organisation, whose roots date back to before the Second World War, is “to contribute to the development by states of structures ensuring the protection and assistance of populations and safe-guarding property and the environment in the face of natural and man-made disasters”.

It was granted the legal status of an intergovernmental organisation in Switzerland in 1976. Its headquarters is in Geneva, where some 59 countries are full members, mostly states from Africa and Eurasia.

Moscow calling shots

Sources cited by RTS also said that decisions around ICDO projects are not taken in Geneva, but in the headquarters of its “strategic partner” – the Russian emergency response ministry EMERCOM.

This is despite the large “management fees” notched up on the ICDO’s Geneva books, including the salary of its Algerian secretary general – CHF26,000 per month, more than the head of the United Nations.

Laurence Boisson de Chazournes, a law professor at the University of Geneva and an expert on international organisations, told RTS that the situation was strange.

“With less than 60 members, including no Western countries, and this dependence on financing from one single country, we can clearly question the universal objectives of this organisation,” she said. It’s “a unique case in the world of international organisations based in Switzerland”.

For its part, the Swiss foreign ministry told RTS that it was “not aware of any elements that could speak against the attribution of its headquarters agreement [as an intergovernmental organisation]”.

However, after reports of a “lack of transparency” within the ICDO and a government-commissioned audit in 2016, Switzerland withdrew its annual funding of CHF150,000 in 2018.

According to RTS, the UBS bank and the Geneva Cantonal Bank, concerned about practices within the ICDO, also closed the organisation’s accounts at the beginning of 2020 and severed ties with it.

RTS added that the Money Laundering Reporting Office Switzerland (MROS), the Federal Police Office’s central money laundering office, had been contacted about the ICDO’s activities, which it said had since been “seriously hampered, even paralysed”.