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Q&A: ICRC chief wants less ideological, more pragmatic Red Cross

ICRC president Peter Maurer in Syria, September 2015 Ibrahim Malla/ICRC
ICRC President Peter Maurer (centre)

Once a very closed and guarded organisation, the International Committee of the Red Cross has in recent years begun to open up. But does this increased engagement with others threaten its much-vaunted independence?

This was one of the questions put to ICRC President Peter Maurer in a brief interview with IRIN’s Managing Editor Heba Aly on the sidelines of the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which wrapped up in Geneva yesterday.

At the conference, states adopted resolutions to better prevent sexual violence in conflict, to investigate attacks on medical facilities, to protect volunteers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and to find ways to improve protections for those detained in non-international armed conflicts.

They failed, however, to back a proposal aimed at boosting compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

See: No deal to strengthen respect for Geneva Conventions

In the interview, Maurer describes his disappointment at the inability to reach consensus on compliance, and his surprise at some of the resolutions that did pass. He also lays out what comes next in attempts to increase compliance with international humanitarian law, including a “jumping on the bandwagon” by states suddenly interested in using existing mechanisms.

Below is an edited transcript of the full interview. And, in audio form, here is part of that exchange, in which Maurer speaks to questions around the ICRC’s mandate, as well as concerns that its increasing ties with the business sector, the UN and others could jeopardise its independence.

Heba Aly: To start, I’d like your reaction to the resolutions that were adopted at this 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Some participants have noted some areas of success, as I’m sure you’re aware, particularly in the resolution condemning attacks on medical facilities, but also the resolution putting sexual and gender-based violence on the agenda. But there have been other failures, as you know, to reach consensus, particularly on a mechanism that would improve compliance to the Geneva Conventions, and on a non-binding instrument, as I understand it, that would set standards for the treatment of prisoners in non-international armed conflicts. So what is your reaction to the resolutions that were adopted today?

Peter Maurer: Well first let me say that the success or failure and results of the conference are not limited to resolutions. It’s an important place where policy convergence can happen. It has been [a forum for] debate and also interesting in pledges that many of the actors made, and, in that way, the new format of the conference, the new way of discussing, has changed the dynamic compared to previous conferences. This is positive.

With regard to the resolutions, I have a similar appreciation from what you suggest in your questions.

On many of the issues that are critically relevant to humanitarian action on the ground – sexual and gender-based violence, healthcare in danger, security of humanitarian personnel – these have been important resolutions where I was positively surprised that we could have so strong language and so much consensus, and so broad consensus.

On compliance, indeed, there is, I thought in this conference, an enormous discrepancy: between the statements in the general debate recognising that compliance is one of the most critical problems and the lack of political ability to transform this into a concrete mechanism at the negotiating table. And I think this is kind of disappointing because we would have hoped that the pressure from the reality that everybody recognises would transform faster and more comprehensively into a clear signal from states that they have to do something, and that a mechanism would be a good [way] to ensure better respect for international humanitarian law. So, the message which may come out of this conference for the victims is that despite the rhetorical recognition that this is a problem, there is no real political will to engage substantively to make things better.

So where does that leave us moving forward? In a world of increasingly messy conflicts, and at a time when there are more humanitarian needs than ever, [given] this failure to get consensus around a mechanism to enforce respect for international humanitarian law, what happens next?

The conference did agree on the continuation of the process and even set some parameters on the direction such a negotiation process could take. The positive thing certainly is that there is a commitment to continue. The question is whether any possible result will kick in early enough to have any sort of meaningful impact on the behaviour on the ground.

The second thing which I thought was interesting is that from many states which we have not heard commitments to use the existing mechanisms, like confidential dialogue with the ICRC, came out as big supporters of those mechanisms. So for us, one of the critical questions, and also I take it as a mandate of ICRC to test this commitment to make the existing mechanisms more meaningful, and we will certainly invest much more time and energy to see whether those who said ‘we don’t want a new mechanism but work with the present mechanism’ are serious in their engagement in using those existing mechanisms in which ICRC has a critical role to play.

And for those states, has having a ‘quiet word’ with them worked in the past?

I think that the instrument of confidential dialogue produces surprisingly good results over time, not necessarily with all those who have now jumped on the bandwagon of praising present or existing mechanisms. So it will have to be tested again – each and every case is different.

But we are convinced that it is our role, responsibility, our specific profile at ICRC, that we try to advance in confidential dialogue as fast as we can, and as good as we can, with some of the critical states. And this touches particularly on the area of detention, and it touches particularly the area of the conduct of hostilities. These are those two areas which are privileged subjects of the confidential dialogue and we will have to see whether, again, with some of those who have committed now publicly in the open debate that this would be the best tool to move forward, whether this materialises in concrete steps.

So in that sense I see a two-tier process in front of me: one where negotiations will continue among states to create such a platform for implementation similar or in the direction of what we have proposed at the beginning of the conference; and secondly, much more individualised bilateral engagements. We may also see some of the regional organisations coming forward. We are engaged in the African Union, with Latin American regional organisations, in order to enhance implementation of international humanitarian law. We will certainly continue to focus even more on international humanitarian law commissions as we have done in the past. So there are of course different avenues in front of us, but I think on both existing mechanisms and negotiation of a new mechanism, I hope to see progress in the near future.

One of the theories as to why many of the resolutions that were put forward at this conference met with such resistance – and I think from what I’ve heard from many of the governments here, it was a surprising amount of resistance – one of the theories for that is that some states feel that the ICRC is overstepping its mandate. They point to, for example, the studies you’ve done on customary international law and on the question of who is a combatant, and they suggest that the ICRC shouldn’t be coming up with these new rules – that should only be the prerogative of governments.
Where does your role in interpreting, codifying and proposing changes to IHL end and the role of member states begin? And if governments are beginning to try to have more control of that process, what does that mean for the ICRC’s role moving forwards?

Let me just say very clearly, I don’t think that the ICRC is overstepping its mandate.We have had a mandate from the previous conference to explore a new mechanism and make proposals to this conference, and that’s what we have done.

In the areas you’ve mentioned, it is very much the role of the ICRC to make proposals to states on the basis of the experience that we make on the ground.None of those studies came out of the blue, but is in sync with the mandate enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. We are here to submit proposals and to take initiatives, and this is a right that is confirmed in the statutes of the movement.

So, I think it’s really the wrong argument to bring forward. We have always said and accepted that it’s up to states afterwards to decide what they want to do with the proposals we make. What has happened over the last three or four days is exactly what is foreseen in the mandate of the ICRC and the mandate of states. We made proposals. We explored the field. We made studies. We informally consulted. We made lists of the pros and cons of the different mechanisms. We tried to see where a possible compromise could be, and it’s up to states afterwards to take the responsibility. They said, and decided, not to act as fast, as comprehensive, as we would have liked, but to rather take more time to deliberate and negotiate some of the directions and proposals that we have made.

So, I would like to ask you about your approach to your leadership of the ICRC. Your background as a diplomat has certainly shaped that, and some have gone as far as to call a ‘slick politician.’ Under your leadership, the ICRC has increased its engagement with the private sector; you sit on the board of the World Economic Forum; and you recently issued a joint statement with the United Nations secretary-general [on the impact of conflict on civilians]. I’ve heard you in public forums: when questioned on some of these associations, you have argued that in today’s world of multi-stakeholder decision-making, you have to engage with all parties that can influence conflict, and many have welcomed, I think, the ICRC’s shift towards increased partnerships.
But there are also some rumblings – including from your predecessors as ICRC president – that these linkages put into jeopardy the neutrality and the impartiality and the operations of the ICRC. So how do you respond to those concerns, and in your view where does that dialogue and influence begin to impinge on independence?

I think once again, we live in a real world of interdependency and you can only define your identity if you define it in relation to somebody around you. And in order to define where the borders are you need to have a relationship, you need to know where the others stand, and where the borders are, and you have to define that in relation with others. Otherwise you just do introspection into yourself and your definition of yourself will land somewhere on another planet.

I think the example of the declaration with the UN secretary-general is a very good one. I mean, there are areas in which the UN secretary-general and the president of the ICRC make the same analyses and come to the same conclusion. This has translated into a common concern and some areas where we call on states to act because there are concerns. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that.

At the same time, I’m the first one to strongly defend ICRC’s operational independence on the ground when we operate in an area in which integrated UN peace operations are unfolding and where we need to be clear that the Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement, and the ICRC in particular, have different modus operandi [to the UN] on the ground. In order to be able to operate, we need to be strictly neutral, impartial and independent. So I don’t think that in today’s world, declaring your neutrality is sufficient. You have basically to continually define what interface with other actors is, and to manage interdependency. This is the best way in knowing what you are yourself, and in portraying to others what you represent. It’s the same with the business sector: as long as we have a commonality of purpose and interest and action in some areas, let’s act together. And, if we don’t have it, let’s not act together.

I think this is the very point and indeed what I try to bring to the ICRC. We have to relate to the broader community. Otherwise, we isolate ourselves and we lose an opportunity also to influence those around us. ICRC has never been an organisation which, certainly not in the vision of the founding fathers, should be limited to a defined territory of action. It has always been an organisation which wanted to influence actors, which wanted to have an impact on the outside world… It’s an old dilemma, and I just want to bring this organisation away from ideological positions, where the statement becomes what you are, instead of a pragmatic way of solving problems and contributing to solving problems, and influencing again others, cooperating with others.


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