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On women, the laws of war, and the Rolling Stones: In conversation with Red Cross chief Peter Maurer

‘What kind of news is it when a hospital is not attacked?’

 International Humanitarian Law, IHL, Red Cross, ICRC, Maurer, interview  Ibrahim Adnan Sherkhan Mohammed al Genkw/ICRC
The ICRC president, Peter Maurer, on a visit to Iraq.

At a time when hospitals are routinely bombed, aid workers attacked, and relief supplies blocked, respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) looks like it has seen better days. 

But despite the negative outlook, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told The New Humanitarian last week’s International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent resulted in “important progress”. 

The ICRC is the ‘custodian’ of the Geneva Conventions – and promotes respect for the laws of war.  

In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, Maurer gave a pragmatic and sometimes candid view of what the ICRC can achieve, its relevance and unprecedented growth. 

He also admitted frustration with states, acknowledged the ICRC’s “structural problem” with women in middle management, and explained why he is selective about his use of the word "Rohingya".

The conference, held once every four years, brings together states who have signed the Geneva Conventions; the 192 national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies – who are auxiliaries to their governments, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the ICRC to agree resolutions to shape humanitarian action. 

At this year’s conference, the ICRC scaled back its ambitions: past attempts to agree a mechanism to enforce compliance with IHL had foundered. 

Even so, delegations this year “fought for every word” when drafting  a range of resolutions ; and the conference ended with a showdown in which government delegations accused each other of politicisation. 

Taking stock, Maurer was pragmatic: “That’s how life is.” 

TNH Director Heba Aly sat down with him  for a wide-ranging interview on everything from  embracing the “nexus” to his signature cravat. 

Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: This year, data sharing, International Humanitarian Law, and climate change were key agenda items [at the conference]. What are you seeing as the main outcomes? And what surprised you the most? 

Peter Maurer: There is no question that while consensus [was] particularly difficult on data and the use of data, it is probably the most important new addition to the traditional agenda that states and the Red Cross movement have discussed in the past. Data in humanitarianism is a much broader issue but [it translated into] a resolution agree[ing] on some protocols and principles on how to use data in the context of family reunifications. So, for me, that was the most important addition to the agenda. 

I would add a second issue which I’m really glad came to the agenda. It has been hidden in the past in big convoluted texts: the whole issue of mental health. It’s the first time that a stand-alone resolution on an intangible is coming to [the] International Conference. You have [had] resolutions on water, sanitation, and health. It is always about hardware, medicine.

The mental health resolution is really a big step forward in recognising that war, conflict, disasters put pressure on people that are not tangible, that are invisible, that have different types of timeframes of effects. The fact that, in this movement, you have so many people from different horizons in a consensual way accepting that this is a priority issue – this I would mention as interesting and new.

TNH: What disappointed you the most in what you have heard or seen in the debates in the drafting committee [responsible for negotiating the resolutions]?

Maurer: That while we have never invested so much time and energy to inform early on, to consult on all these issues, and to create an atmosphere of topical engagement on the resolutions, when states come to this fora, they load their resolution with – very frankly – a lot of outside and irrelevant stuff for the subjects we are discussing.

I don’t know why all these countries have been silent [during the] six months’ consultation process and haven’t basically objected to an emerging consensus on six or seven resolutions… [and then], at the opening of the conference and at the drafting committee, they load texts with amendments. They could have done it before.

TNH: And do you think that is an intentional way of trying to sabotage the process? 

Maurer: I’m not sure whether I would go so far. I don’t know.

It’s at the minimum a deep misunderstanding of what [the International Conference] is for, and what it is not for. This is not a UN conference in which states argue with states. This is a conference in which states and the Red Cross movement try to find consensus on an issue.

TNH: At the last international conference four years ago, you tried – and failed – to get consensus around a compliance mechanism for IHL. 

This year’s conference seems to have had much lower ambitions on that front. The resolution [focused instead on domestic implementation of IHL] and called only for “respect for IHL” and “ensuring respect for IHL” – language that already exists in the Geneva Conventions that states have signed up to. Yet even that was debated at some length.

Is lowering the bar to that level in order to find consensus – searching for the lowest common denominator – an effective use of your effort? 

Maurer: It is a very forward-looking and ambitious resolution. It just doesn’t have the same focus as the resolution four years ago. 

At ICRC, we have sometimes underestimated, I think, the importance of national anchoring of international humanitarian law. The guidance [this resolution] offers means relevant and important consensus and progress.

There is consensus about respecting and ensuring respect for the Geneva Conventions. That's the basis. Everybody agrees. But not everybody agrees whether this formula of ‘respect and ensure respect’ is also relevant to international humanitarian law overall. And what exactly, then, international humanitarian law is.

TNH:  You have prioritized humanitarian diplomacy, as you call it, meaning reaching out to those states – many of them emerging powers – that don’t respect IHL. Is it working? Do you have success stories that you can tie back to this humanitarian diplomacy effort?

Maurer: There are [such] powerful testimonies of where International Humanitarian Law is the guidance and is applied in the day-to-day reality. I understand that what makes headline news is the bombing of a hospital, but there are also hospitals which are not bombed in conflict.

If you look for instance at what many of the armed forces today engaged in coalition warfare have as increasingly refined instructions to their military operations in order to prevent civilian harm, these are very sophisticated systems, which are the result of public pressure, certainly, but also the result of professional dialogues with the ICRC and the militaries of the respective parties to conflict in order to respect International Humanitarian Law. 

TNH: And even then, it’s sometimes being violated.

Maurer: Of course.

TNH: Even despite the deconfliction efforts that have been made where there are really clear agreements about not striking [civilian targets]…

Maurer: I don't say that there are not massive problems of implementation. And I don't say there are not massive violations of International Humanitarian Law.

What is difficult to communicate is very often this: the preventive, precautionary approach in gathering political momentum that ‘you need to engage as a military leader; you need to ensure that your troops behave; you need to train them to instruct them’ and so on – all these efforts that we are undertaking are in contrast to what you see coming in as images from the [battle] front. That doesn't mean that [we] are unsuccessful on [our] work stream of ensuring respect [for IHL]. 

But, of course, what kind of news is it when a hospital is not attacked? 

For instance, in South Sudan, we have evacuated one of our regional delegations five times in two years. And, to our big surprise, although massive combat operations have taken place during our absence, one building has been unaffected and it was the hospital. It is very interesting to see that our engagement with the parties has obviously convinced them that it is in their interest to leave that hospital intact and to have it function. But, of course, what kind of news is it when a hospital is not attacked? 

TNH: When you have to choose between the governments that are part of your consensus-building framework - and that you depend on for access - and the people whom you are meant to be serving, how do you make that choice? Do you piss off the Myanmar government or do you piss off the Rohingya people?

Maurer: The dilemma is not between principles and pragmatism. The question is how you will use the principle as a guideline for the best possible practical solution. You want to find the solution for people and that's what counts at the end of the day.

TNH: But when you get practical about that, do you use the word Rohingya?

Maurer: It depends. In certain contexts, I use the word Rohingya and in certain contexts, I don't use the word Rohingya. Everything in diplomacy is about timing, sequencing, and specificity. 

In certain contexts, I use the word Rohingya and in certain contexts, I don't use the word Rohingya.

When you talk to leaders in Myanmar in order to generate consensus for your operation, you may make a concession in how exactly to frame the issue because it is not conducive to getting a consensual humanitarian space if you don't, because then you spend half an hour discussing whether this term is acceptable or not acceptable. 

So that's how life is.

TNH: The ICRC has been on a massive growth trajectory in recent years, now with more than 1,000 staff in headquarters, more than 20,000 staff internationally, a budget of 2.1 billion CHF. Is that sustainable? Do you think the bubble will burst?

Maurer: Well, I don't know.

We have grown our operations because we were confronted with multiple needs in multiple contexts and we saw this predominance of violence and conflict as a major disruptor in many of the contexts in which the core ICRC mandate and activity was in demand.

With the so-called Arab Spring and disruptions that we have seen in the Middle East; with the intensification of some of the conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad; with even the continent of Europe falling back into conflicts, if you take the Ukrainian example; and many others, the conundrum of fragility has become a very dominant template. Within that concept of fragility, violence and conflict have created humanitarian needs at large scale. 

So it is normal that you try to build a humanitarian response and this humanitarian response has led to growth. But it's not our objective to grow. It's our objective to respond in areas where we think that we have a unique value proposition for the response.

When I sometimes talk to business people, I'm often introduced as the guy who has doubled the budget of ICRC. And in the business community that sounds like: ‘Wow, this guy must be good. He has doubled turnover.’ And then my first sentence is always: ‘Wait a minute. With you, this is success. With me, it’s failure.’

Let's not fool ourselves. It's palliative care, because it’s humanitarian.

Much of the problems that we are looking at have a more long-term dimension than we were used to. And so, logically as well, we are looking at building a response which is manageable and sustainable in a longer term than we had beforehand. We need to reflect on how we can also find different forms of finance which are not only short-term finance.

A dozen ICRC trucks deliver food and essential household items in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Alex Robert Haemmerli/ICRC
A dozen ICRC trucks deliver food and essential household items in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

TNH: You’re hoping that the nexus money will take you forward?

Maurer: We are not hoping. We are working towards realising it.

We are looking for development agencies, development banks who increasingly are aware that their development money is in danger by fragile contexts spreading. We are looking at how we can bring them into recognising fragility as a key issue and helping us with those medium or longer term needs which we see unfolding in front of us.

We have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Agence Française de Développement. It is an interesting example because it's to cover a type of project which is not emergency response, but is happening in emergency contexts in which ICRC has unique access and a unique relationship with belligerents. It's fixing water distribution systems in Mosul, [Iraq], which is exactly those nexus type of situations that many people are referring to.  

TNH: You talked about changing needs. Humanitarianism is changing too: protracted crises, new players, climate change, digitalisation. I was crowd-sourcing questions to put to you and someone said, ‘Ask him if he thinks that the ICRC is kind of like the Rolling Stones – living off of the back catalogue while the world has moved on.’

Maurer: (laughter) Should I agree to that?

TNH: How do you see the struggle for relevance today – and not only externally, but even internally within your own organisation?

Maurer: That’s such a big question (pause).

TNH: There’s also localisation: As the ICRC is growing and growing, many would argue: Why does the ICRC need to grow? Why can't you be empowering the local organisations and the local national societies?

Maurer: Well, first, there is no contradiction between ICRC growing and localisation.

TNH: Well, there's only so much money in the pot.

Maurer: No. That's the big mistake that a lot of people make.

My value proposition has been from the beginning that the pot not only can be – it must be – enlarged.

We have all managed in the humanitarian community to substantively enlarge the cake.

When I started as permanent representative of Switzerland [to the UN in New York] in 2004, the accumulated UN budget was something like $1.5 billion for humanitarian affairs. [Today, the UN’s global humanitarian appeal is for] $29 billion. That's new money. It's by far not sufficient; it's still a huge gap. And therefore, we have to find new financial instruments.

Where I agree with you is that the economic formula that is predominant in the humanitarian sector – that you fundraise and you transform fundraised money into social services – this formula most likely has its limits. 

And that's the whole debate that I have tried to – and I continue to try to – animate and to find interest and consensus in the humanitarian community and in the business community for humanitarian investment. 

And then there is another current: We have moved away – when it's not really necessary – from just goods delivery and access negotiation into cash delivery. We have introduced new technology.

It is really a wrong analogy – the Rolling Stones analogy – because with all due respect, there are not so many agencies which have thought through some of these issues and pioneered and piloted projects and introduced these changes into their daily working practice as ICRC has over a relatively short period.

And with regard to the localisation, I find this quite a wrong debate. We are 2,500 international staff out of 20,000. If you look at what we’ve done over the last couple of years, our growth in terms of human resources has been local growth. And the struggle is, of course, now to integrate this huge increase of locals into a human resource policy in which there is equity and equality amongst different groups of staff. And that's a big-ticket issue.

TNH: You've just led me to exactly my next question, which is women and leadership. You had a resolution about this [at the conference], calling for increased representation of women at decision-making levels of the movement. And yet the ICRC president, vice-president, outgoing director-general, incoming director-general; the IFRC’s newly elected secretary-general; and until the new elections [at the conference], the entire membership of the Standing Commission [responsible for setting the agenda of the International Conference] were all men. So what's going on there?

Maurer: At the level of the governance of the ICRC, we have today – still not parity, but – a much more gender-balanced assembly than seven years ago. At the level of the directorate, it's 50/50, in terms of director posts at the ICRC. In terms of senior leadership, we are still below 50. In the middle management, we have big problems to get to decent numbers. And at entry point in the ICRC, I think we are pretty good – 50/50 or even more. 

It's [the] classic [problem]. You get 55 percent to 60 percent women in. You lose them along the way.

TNH: Why do you lose them along the way?

Maurer: We have made quite sophisticated analysis [in the form of an external review on gender equality] on why you lose them. You have classic [reasons] like family, family policy, family separations, kids, schooling, all the differences which are multiplied and accentuated because of the difficulties of circumstances in which we operate. 

When you lose women in the middle management, you have an enormous difficulty at the top leadership level to bring them in again.

When you lose women in the middle management, you have an enormous difficulty at the top leadership level to bring them in again. So one of the big issues is really not to lose them in the middle management. You have to look into much more sophisticated HR policies which allow you to keep women and to look at some of the specific demands and needs to keep them in.

It’s interesting – at a certain moment of selection processes, we got a decent [number] of women; and at the end of today, it's… The present constellation, I would probably look at it as rather accidental. It could have just been otherwise. 

TNH: You’re 63 years old. You've just been re-appointed to your position. Heading into another four long years, what gives you the energy? 

Maurer: This is so difficult to say.

I am quite passionate about what I'm doing, as you see. 

Being in an organisation which allows me to go to the field and at the same time, work in what I always like to do in my life – I chose to be a diplomat because I like this job – the combination in this function is very interesting and stimulating.

Yes, the world is changing fast, and I like when something is changing fast and we can do something about it. You can try to influence, shape an organisation, which has good musical record. 

I mean, the Rolling Stones are good. So maybe I like the analogy more than you think.

What I like is basically the Rolling Stones plus innovation. Only the Rolling Stones would be a little bit boring. It's like only listening to Mozart, and these piano concerts back and forth. To stay in the music [analogy], one of my favorite [pianists] is Gabriella Monteiro and she does great improvisations on themes of classical music.

And that's probably what I like about my job. It's very much rooted in the tradition – I’m a very conservative, traditional person – and it allows you to then see the dynamic and to see what can you do with such an organisation with a great mandate and a great value proposition.

So why not have some energy for that?

TNH: Thank you, as always, for making the time. I always ask the same questions in various variations, and I always get consistent answers.

Maurer: It’s something which unnerves people with me. Consistency is something very boring. I’m always saying the same thing.

TNH: You are Swiss, after all…

Maurer: You mean I’m boring… You see that one of the boring parts is of course that I have [been wearing] the same colour of clothes, the same shoes for 30 years – I always wear Sebago sneakers. So that’s also a sign of consistency. 

TNH: …and the same cravat.    

Maurer: And the same cravat, which has a huge advantage. It’s basically a life-saving tool, because it keeps you warm, protected from air-conditioning [and sandstorms]. It’s multi-faceted. 


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