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IFRC picks new president in vote mired in controversy

Election saw sexual harassment allegations and a postponement attempt amid promises of unity.

Venezuelan Red Cross volunteers remove a logo from a container carrying humanitarian aid to be stored in a warehouse in Caracas, Venezuela, on 31 July 2019. Manaure Quintero/Reuters
Venezuelan Red Cross volunteers remove a logo from a container carrying humanitarian aid to be stored in a warehouse in Caracas, Venezuela, on 31 July 2019.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies elected only its second-ever female president on 11 December – amid clashes between the body’s governing board and national societies that almost derailed the process.

Kate Forbes of the American Red Cross, will become the second woman and the fifth American to hold the position in the federation’s 104 years of existence.

During a morning speech at the IFRC’s general assembly, Forbes said, if elected, she would only “serve one term so I can focus on the work and not on being re-elected”. She also said she had resigned from her board positions and promised not to run for political office.

The election to replace Francesco Rocca of Italy was already mired in controversy: Rocca announced in June that he would be stepping down early following conflict of interest accusations related to the fact he is also the head of government in Italy’s Lazio region.

Monday’s vote added more to the process. In a last-minute announcement, Rocca told Red Cross and Red Crescent societies gathered in Geneva that the governing board had decided to postpone elections following sexual harassment allegations against Abbas Gullet, one of the four contenders for the top job.

The alleged acts were said to have taken place between 2016 and 2018, Rocca said. Gullet, who was secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross from 2005 until 2020, has said he would welcome an investigation into the allegations.

Rocca, who at first didn’t disclose the name of Abbas or the nature of the allegations, said the board had decided to launch an investigation into the claims – received on 28 November – after lengthy deliberations that had already delayed the general assembly for one hour.

“This decision was not made lightly but is necessary to ensure the integrity of the federation and the concerned candidate,” Rocca said, arguing that free and fair elections could not be held under the circumstances.

But the announcement displeased delegates in the room, triggering heated exchanges with Rocca. The Moroccan Red Crescent said it was a “slap in the face of the societies in Georgia, Egypt, the US, and Kenya”, referring to the national societies backing the day’s four candidates.

Jordan’s national chapter also protested against the last-minute postponement and said it was up to the general assembly to decide, drawing applause from the room.

Addressing the elephant in the room, a representative from the Kenya Red Cross took the floor to say it was its own candidate, Abbas Gullet, who was being targeted, and proposed that elections go ahead; if elected, Gullet would step aside pending the investigation.

Gullet, who was invited by Rocca to take the floor, then accused the board of “double standards”, referring to Rocca’s integrity having been brought into question when he was first a candidate in 2017. This was over the fact that he had spent time in prison when he was 19 years old for dealing drugs. An irritated Rocca replied that he had addressed this openly with the general assembly at that time.

After a further row over the technicalities of whether the elections could now go ahead, the governing board walked out of the room to reconsider the matter. Eventually, they decided, given the level of disagreement with the board, that this was up to the general assembly.

Rocca cautioned delegates that they would have to be ready to deal with the reputational fallout of having an elected president step aside during an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.

Not heeding his warnings, an overwhelming majority voted in favour of holding the elections. The Red Cross societies of Switzerland, Britain, Denmark, and Trinidad and Tobago were among the few outliers to vote against.

Forbes was finally elected with 88 votes in favour out of 163 national chapters that took part in the vote. Gullet received 75 votes. Natia Loladze, president of the Georgia Red Cross and IFRC vice-president, was eliminated in the first round, only gathering 15 votes, and the Egypt Red Crescent’s chief executive, Ramy El Nazer, who amassed 22 votes, decided to withdraw from the race.

The investigation into the allegations against Gullet will still go ahead.

A ‘strange day’

Forbes, 72, had been the chairman of the IFRC’s Audit and Risk Commission. She has been an American Red Cross volunteer for 43 years and has held various positions within the IFRC over the last 17 years.

She took over from Rocca as soon as Monday’s assembly closed. In short remarks, Forbes said her message – on what had been a “strange day” – was one of “unity” for the global movement.

Rocca closed the meeting by echoing Forbes's call for unity, and by apologising for his own mistakes during his time as president.

A version of this article was first published by Geneva Solutions. It was adapted by The New Humanitarian and re-published here with permission.

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