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In conversation with Peter Maurer: An exit interview with the ICRC president

On what’s wrong with localisation; why he doesn't regret taking photos with Russia’s foreign minister; and what gives him hope.

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Outgoing ICRC president Peter Maurer speaks with Heba Aly, CEO of The New Humanitarian.

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The outgoing head of one of the world’s biggest aid groups says the traditional humanitarian response model has “come to an end”. So what comes next? 

Peter Maurer is stepping down after 10 years as the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC. In a broad conversation, Maurer spoke to The New Humanitarian’s Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast about his decade on the front lines of diplomacy, and his thoughts on the future of a sector in need of change.

Over the last 10 years, the world’s crises have grown longer and more complex, conflicts more entrenched, and international humanitarian norms challenged and flouted.

But Maurer believes his role leading one of the world’s largest and most influential aid organisations is, ultimately, to search for solutions in the face of these immense challenges.

“Hope,” he said, “comes from showing that it is possible – not by declaring failure.”

He called out politicians for what he says is an “indifference, unwillingness, and incapacity” to solve the world’s most critical issues: “I always thought that the diplomats were the peacemakers and the militaries were the warriors,” he said. “I’m not so sure anymore.”

And he spoke bluntly about the aid sector’s stalled “localisation” agenda, the next phase of humanitarianism, and the need for experimentation.

“The traditional operational model of humanitarianism is some internationally recognised organisation – be it UN, Red Cross, [or] others – collecting money to transform it into services for people somewhere. And I think we have come to an end of that model.”

Below are excerpts of his conversation with The New Humanitarian. Listen to the full interview or read the podcast transcript here

On criticism of who he shakes hands with:

Maurer’s openness to engaging with various players has garnered him criticism. Some felt sitting on the board of the World Economic Forum jeopardised the ICRC’s trademark neutrality. Photos of him shaking hands, smiling, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked an outcry

Many argue he has made the ICRC more political. On this point, he pushed back. “I may have engaged more with political actors than presidents before,” he said. "But engaging with political actors, for me, is not making the organisation more political… It was playing my role of trying to influence political actors to behave in a way which is more consistent with humanitarian law and principle.“

On those photos:

Maurer said he understands why many Ukrainians were offended to see the head of the ICRC shaking hands with Lavrov.

But he has no regrets about having the photos taken, he said, suggesting the issue became “emotionalised” on social media.

“The same photo that exists with Sergey Lavrov exists probably with 100 other foreign ministers in the world. So there is a question of context, the question of whether this is the right choreography,” he said. “But it was the right thing to go to Moscow. And it was the right thing to continue, on a day-to-day basis, to be in touch with the Russian authorities, with the Ukrainian authorities, with the local authorities in Ukraine, in order to carve out the space for our work. That’s the baseline, and that’s what is important. The rest is also a little bit of a distraction from what is essential.”

On backsliding on international humanitarian law:

The last decade has seen repeated violations of international humanitarian law, in Syria, Ukraine, Myanmar, and beyond.

Aid analysts say the humanitarian system is under direct threat. UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said the founding charter of the UN – and the ideals it represents – “are in jeopardy”.  

But while acknowledging that most engagements with parties to conflict are based on “transactionalism” instead of a desire to uphold the law, Maurer instead focused on the flipside: when humanitarian norms are respected.

“It is also my task as the president of this organisation, and the guardian that this organisation is for the Geneva Convention, to keep hope alive.”

“There is nobody serious around the world who is engaged as a major actor in a conflict, which flatly rejects international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention as the normative framework under which he wants to operate,” he said.

“It is important to highlight that there is still a common basis. And I disagree with the sort of cacophony of opinions around the world, and publicised opinions around the world, that the Geneva Conventions are either irrelevant or are constantly violated. They are insufficiently applied, and they are violated, but they are also applied. And so if you want better respect, you need also to find the entry points and methods into how to do it.”

“It is also my task as the president of this organisation, and the guardian that this organisation is for the Geneva Convention, to keep hope alive,” he continued. “Hope… comes from showing that it is possible – not by declaring failure.”

On what the head of the ICRC can (and can’t) do:

The ICRC president heads one of the largest humanitarian organisations on the planet, but there’s a limit to the position’s power, according to Maurer.

“You may have an ability to influence decisions because you create trust with interlocutors who take decisions, but you are not in a position of power in a classic diplomatic sense of the term,” he said.

“The key role of chief diplomat of this organisation is to find access points to influence power. It’s not to exert power.”

He described himself as “more disenchanted” by the political dynamics of the international community, which leave crises that “could so easily be brought to a better place” unresolved.

How to address that? 

Maurer pointed to better leadership, noting that the biggest priority of any politician today should be to lower the threshold for dialogue: “As a prime minister or a president or a foreign minister [or] defence minister, your primary objective [should be] to remove obstacles to cooperate, to negotiate.” 

On success and failure:

Asked to describe his biggest success during a decade at the helm, Maurer at first deflects. But his initial answer may also be an apt description of a global emergency aid system that is, often, a last resort when all else has failed. 

“I don’t like to talk about success when talking about humanitarian work,” he said.

“Because frankly, in the big scheme of things, what you do is prevent the worst. And ‘prevent the worst’ goes not well with the word of ‘success’.”

Maurer takes pride in what he sees as the ICRC maintaining space for neutrality in places like Syria and Ukraine.

“I don’t like to talk about success when talking about humanitarian work.”

And he still dwells on where he and his colleagues haven’t managed to carve out that space.

“When I look at the map, there is a disturbing amount of region and territory around the world in which dramatic humanitarian situations unfold, and where we somehow didn’t manage to find the right access points, where we didn’t understand maybe sufficiently the local dynamics, where we misread, or we were not able to read how and what to do in order to negotiate access,” he said.

“And of course, you ask yourself constantly in those situations of blockage, what else can you do? And it remains an issue of frustration.”

On what gives him hope:

After a decade on the job, Maurer has found reason for optimism in unexpected places: some of his meetings with commanders of militaries and armed groups.

“They are not blind warriors. They are the ones who radicalise and accentuate conflict [the least],” he said.

“I always thought that the diplomats were the peacemakers and the militaries were the warriors,” he continued. “I’m not so sure anymore, after 10 years, that this is the case.”

On localisation:

Count Maurer as a critic of localisation – the sector-wide pledge to shift the power in a top-down humanitarian system: “I don’t like the localisation template, because I think it's the… wrong approach to cope with a problem.”

“I do believe we need a new deal on how to articulate international, national, local, in a different way, and that local actors need a bigger say – and need a different say – in articulating what needs are. And what they expect is obvious,” Maurer said.

“The question is, what happens then? Localisation suggests that locals just say what they need and internationals just deliver what locals need. And that's too simplistic.”

The wider aid sector made broad pledges to localise aid as part of 2016’s so-called Grand Bargain reforms. But local aid leaders say little has changed over since then.

On what comes next for a humanitarian system in need of change:

While Maurer may be sceptical of the reform process as it stands, he does believe that the traditional model of humanitarianism has run its course: “You simply come to the conclusion that the governance system as it works will not be able to cope with the problems that we have accumulated,” he said.

But what comes next? The current climate is not ripe for new ways forward, he suggested.

“The dominant force that I have seen at operation over the last 10 years is fragmentation, is the diversification of interests,” he said. “And when there is diversification of interests, you need to give space to interests to converge again… So, I think this is a phase of experimentation, and not of rushing to conclusions.” 

Asked what the biggest priority for humanitarianism will be in the next 10 years, he answered: “Changed mindset”. 

Original interview by Heba Aly, produced for the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast by Melissa Fundira, and adapted by Irwin Loy

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