Q&A with Peter Maurer: Respect the rules of war or pay the price

The Red Cross president tells IRIN that governments are beginning to realise the hidden costs of ignoring IHL

ICRC President Peter Maurer visits bomb site in Syria ICRC/Ibrahim Malla
ICRC president Peter Maurer on a visit to Syria

If there’s one person committed to ending the flagrant violations of international humanitarian law seen in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and beyond, it’s Peter Maurer.

As president of the the International Committee of the Red Cross, the world’s most respected humanitarian agency and the global guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, the soft-spoken Maurer lobbies presidents and prime ministers behind the scenes to stop bombing hospitals, to allow aid access, and to generally shield civilians from the brunt of war.

At a time when the UN secretary-general says the brutality of conflict threatens to “unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits”, this week’s first-ever World Humanitarian Summit aimed to reinforce pressure on states to abide by the legal norms intended to make war more humane.

The UN-organised summit in Istanbul sought several commitments from governments, including enhancing respect for international humanitarian law, unimpeded humanitarian assistance and condemnation of violations. (Here’s a read-out of government statements at “Roundtable V”)

But did the summit deliver? As it drew to a close, I sat down with Maurer for his reflections. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Peter Maurer:  When we spoke last time, I was not yet sure whether issues of law and protection would have an adequate place in this summit. And I had the impression at the high-level panel on international humanitarian law that there is a broad consensus that humanitarian problems can’t be solved only by throwing money at problems and by assisting people. You have to have change of behaviour. And change of behaviour goes into respecting the rules and the laws. And while here, I wouldn’t talk about spectacular advances, you have more and more countries coming forward and saying, ‘This is important. If we don’t want displacement going completely out of proportion; if we want to at least contain some of the effects of conflicts; we have to talk about respect for the law, and this is something which concerns all parties.’

Heba Aly: On that point – which as I understand it, was the ICRC’s priority going into this summit – apart from recognition that respect for IHL is important – which means little, frankly, when they continue bombing hospitals and behaving in the way that many states have – did anything else emerge on that subject in particular that gives you any hope? It doesn’t seem to me that there was any concrete agreement or outcome in that regard.

There definitely wasn’t… And I couldn’t agree with you more: it’s certainly not what suffices. You have to do more than just recommit to what you have already committed to 50 years ago.

And violated…

And violated.


[But] since the 32nd conference [of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, where a deal to enhance compliance with the rules of war failed to pass], we feel that there is – at least in some of the critical parts of the world – more engagement with ICRC. Some of it truly confidential engagement on the respect of international humanitarian law. We feel that some countries and some actors are more positively engaging. But I would agree with you – these are not spectacular advances. But it’s also the recognition that this is a serious situation.

Have you made any gains towards the mechanism that you’re trying to establish to encourage compliance with IHL? Were there new converts since the Red Cross Red Crescent conference in December?

There wasn’t much movement on this issue which, as you know, is basically also set to come back onto the international agenda at the next international conference. We have a first meeting of states' experts coming together on 3rd of June in Geneva, so we’ll see whether some of the positive impact here from the summit will translate into some progress.

But we don’t focus exclusively on this way. We have to have to a much more multi-faceted approach. We want operational dialogues with actors on the ground. We want review of their actions. We want engagement. We want access to detainees they hold. 

And you would say that’s improving?

This is partly improving. We are making some progress, which is related, I think, to a general recognition that you can’t just disregard the law.

What’s the evidence of that improvement?

That’s always the difficulty. In some critical contexts like Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, we advance in our dialogue on and review of military operations and we manage to do more with critical actors, but they choose in many respects confidential dialogue over the public space on those issues. It’s very clear.

If there was one thing that you’d like to see carried forward out of the summit, what would it be?

I would say the implementation of the Grand Bargain and continuation of this process of the Grand Bargain is the most important one. It’s not the most important thing in absolute terms that I would expect. But if you ask what would I expect out of this summit, then that’s the best you can have out of the summit: that the Grand Bargain is implemented, and that by September, December, we see progress on the two, three, critical areas.

On the broader picture, I still believe that we have a very serious problem on international humanitarian law. I don’t know whether you have seen the speech that I delivered at the roundtable this morning. I put quite a lot of energy into it.

With the strong applause at the end. Yes I heard it.

Because that basically is reflecting what I would hope – in the larger context of humanitarian problems – where the focus should be. Effectiveness, efficiency, innovation – all that stuff is good and achievable, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. [We need to] shift attention to the intrinsic problem of non-respect of rules. And this basically means that states and non-state actors have to fundamentally reprioritise their priorities in conflict.

But on that front, is there any reason to be hopeful? Particularly given the attendance we saw among the states that are engaged in conflict and that would be in a position to do something about these issues – who weren’t present [at senior levels] here.

The question is, at the end of the day, whether the cost of violation is starting to be felt. And I think that at least in some parts of the world, we are starting to see a recognition that the costs of violations are enormous.

What are the costs?

The costs of violations are basically skyrocketing humanitarian assistance expenses, skyrocketing displacement numbers, destabilisation of political systems because of displacement. And I have the impression that the link between this and international humanitarian law is better understood.

But, again, you are right. I am not a blue-eyed illusionist who thinks that we see a sea change. Nevertheless, I have the impression of being listened to a little bit more carefully at the present moment when I say to ministers and prime ministers and presidents, ‘If you complain about the cost of your expenses for migrants; if you complain about migration; if you complain about skyrocketing humanitarian expenses – don’t do it when at the same time you are unwilling to address forcefully, and wherever you have an influence, the issue of respect of the law’. States are looking at these arguments in a different way now.


Cover photo by ICRC / Ibrahim Malla

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