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Rethinking Humanitarianism | ‘No regrets’: Peter Maurer on 10 years as ICRC president

‘Engaging with political actors is not making the organisation more political.’

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The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, has been in operation for nearly 160 years and is still one of the largest and most influential aid organisations in the world today. For the last 10 years, the man presiding over this historic institution has been Peter Maurer. 

In the first episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism Season 3, host Heba Aly sits down with Maurer for an exit interview as he prepares to step down from his role as ICRC president. 

Since 2012, Maurer has led the ICRC through several challenging new humanitarian crises – from the conflict in Syria, to the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, to the invasion of Ukraine. He pushed back against violations of International Humanitarian Law that became more blatant under his tenure, and insisted on a neutral role for the organisation – despite perceptions, at times, to the contrary. 

How does he look back on his decade on the front lines of aid diplomacy? And how has it shaped his views on the future of humanitarianism?

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TRANSCRIPT | ‘No regrets’: Peter Maurer on 10 years as ICRC president

Al Jazeera clip

“[Explosion] Wherever war and upheaval is going on, even in the most difficult of circumstances, there is sometimes a place for basic common decency. And that place is where organizations such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent work…”

Speech by President of ICRC Peter Maurer on 1st Plenary Session of MCIS-2021

“Our aim is always humanitarian. Our actions are based on the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Our objectives are the trust of all parties to conflict and access to the most vulnerable communities.”

In conversation with Peter Maurer, ICRC president

I'm convinced that what I can bring from 25 years experience in the Swiss diplomatic service is maybe a certain sense of pragmatism, this doesn't mean that you are not principled in your approach. And of course, the ICRC is an organization that has a mandate which invites on the one side to be principled in approach but also to be pragmatic because you don't want people to suffer because of principles.

Heba Aly

The International Committee of the Red Cross or ICRC has been in operation for nearly 160 years and is still one of the largest and most influential aid organisations in the world today.

For the last 10 years the man presiding over this historic institution was Peter Maurer.

Since 2012, he has led the ICRC through mounting humanitarian crises – from the conflict in Syria to migration to Europe, to the invasion of Ukraine.

He pushed back against violations of International Humanitarian Law that became more blatant under his tenure; and insisted on a neutral role for the organisation – despite perceptions of the contrary.

How does he look back on his decade on the front lines of aid diplomacy? And what has it taught him about the future?

This is Season 3 of Rethinking Humanitarianism. I'm your host Heba Aly.

The world is arguably at a historic inflection point, and so this season we’re going to be exploring alternatives to today’s global governance models and what a new world order could mean for humanitarianism. But first…

At the end of September, just over 10 years after stepping into the role of ICRC President, Peter Maurer is stepping down.

Maurer is a Swiss diplomat who came to the job after being Switzerland's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to the United Nations.

I recently sat down with him for an exit interview and in our conversation, he responded with a discreteness typical of the ICRC, especially when it came to behind the scenes conflict negotiations.

But he was also frank:

“I think it is important to be sober and realistic. This is not a fun job.”

Much has changed during his time at the ICRC – for one, crises are multiplying and becoming more complex and he has responded, in part, by making new alliances.

His 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. The image of him shaking hands, smiling, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked an outcry. Many argue he has made the ICRC more political.

“I may have engaged more with political actors than presidents before. But engaging with political actors, for me is not making the organisation more political.”

In our conversation, he called out politicians for what he calls 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. I’m not so sure anymore.”

And he spoke bluntly about the next phase of humanitarianism and the need for experimentation, rather than a rush towards another so-called “Grand Bargain”.

“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.”

In this episode, we sit down with Peter Maurer about his time in office, and what the future holds.

Peter, welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Peter Maurer

Thanks a lot for having me, Heba.

Heba Aly

So we are sitting here in the Grand Salon of the ICRC headquarters, and you are in your last few days as president. I'd love to just hear how you're feeling and what you're thinking about as this decade long chapter that is now coming to an end?

Peter Maurer

Well, I feel quite proud that the organisation has been able to be relevant to almost all the emerging conflicts that I have witnessed over the last 10 years. I think there is no major place where armed conflict and significant dynamics of violence have emerged, in which we were absent. This doesn't mean that we have always been able to adequately respond to the challenges, but we were able to negotiate a space in which we could enter conflicts, even when it was really difficult to access certain regions. So I’m proud that we have managed this ability in an increasingly complexifying environment to be there.

And secondly, I would highlight that we have seen digital transformation coming to all sectors of life, we have seen a lot of economic and social challenges in societies. You know that I have emphasised the fact that with an increasing discrepancy of needs coming out of conflict and our limited ability to respond, we needed to partner with others, to look how to do things better. And I think many of the trends which have informed societal change in other areas have also been embraced by the ICRC and that made us a better organisation and more relevant in our response.

Heba Aly

What about on a personal level? How are you feeling?

Peter Mauer

On a personal level? As always, there is this feeling of relief, that 10 years of never-ending challenge comes to an end and I look forward that there is a break. And then of course, President of ICRC is not just a job. It’s something which touches you emotionally and, very frankly, I appreciated to be touched emotionally, I thought it was a great change compared to hard-nosed and poker-faced diplomat, to be also rooted in real life, in real society's issues, to have an ability to talk to people when going to the field, to my own staff, to those with whom we were working together, Red Cross and Red Crescent operators, but also those who worked on our projects, those who are in the communities in which we work. So I will probably miss that part of the interpersonal experience and relationships. And, then there is the relief part as well.

Heba Aly

You were, I think the President that shuttled around the world, the most in terms of I mean, your travel schedule was crazy.

Peter Maurer

Because I thought that the concept of proximity and front line – which has been with the ICRC for 160 years – was extremely relevant, and needed to be concretised through the work of the president during my tenure. I thought it was the real advantage of a president to talk to political leaders involved in conflict and to talk to affected communities at the same time. And it was important to listen to those voices in order to define what eventually the spaces that a neutral and impartial organisation can occupy.

You are the chief diplomat of the organisation. So you need somehow to engage with political leaders taking decisions, which are relevant to the conflicts in which you operate. And that brings you to the multilateral capitals of the world, to the P5, the G20, the influencers, the regional powers, you need, somehow to understand what moves them in order to understand what moves the conflict dynamics, and what can you do and where are the spaces. So, you have a role as a humanitarian diplomat. But then, I understood over time, probably more closely that you are also a leader of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. You are basically formally or informally seen as one of the two leaders of that movement in which you want to be a symbol and a reference person for those who are at the front line. You need to be with them, you can’t – old military wisdom – be a general without knowing what the frontline looks like. You can't be a good humanitarian if you don't know what your frontliners do, how they think and what the specific dynamics are. I think both those roles pointed to the necessity of being active outside of Geneva. And then we had the complexification of conflicts, the multiplicity of conflicts, the multiplicity of actors, state and non-state and theatres of operations in which we were working. And I think this kind of of instability and volatility of those who are the drivers and shakers and movers of the conflict realities in which we work, it was important that I would try to get an understanding: what moves them, what is in the back of their minds, and you can’t somehow get to the back of their minds without being in the same room with them.

What I saw on the ground in the role of the diplomat, there is an intrinsic link. And this is maybe the most unique position that you have as president of ICRC. Because you are a translator, from front line needs and suffering into the immediate arena of political decision-making. It doesn’t mean that political decision-makers, at the end of the day, act in a way you wish them to act. But it gives you a unique opportunity to inject what moves and shakes and preoccupies communities at front lines of conflict.

Heba Aly

So let's make that a bit more concrete. You see your role, or you saw your role as the chief diplomat. And of course, the ICRC has a special role in conflicts in a confidential dialogue between warring parties and trying to build that consensus. So what do you see as your biggest success in that regard over your tenure?

Peter Maurer

At the outset, I don’t like to talk about success when talking about humanitarian work. Because very 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. But to take your question, Heba, at the end of today, the humanitarian space we were able to negotiate to secure and I would say the licence to operate in so many contexts, is what makes success for the president and for the institution.

Heba Aly

But looking back at all the conflicts that you have witnessed over your tenure, Syria, the migration crisis in Europe, the impacts of climate change, moving away a bit from the conflict space, but also has been a big feature of your travel. Now with Ukraine, where do you feel like you’ve really made a breakthrough?

Peter Maurer

The ICRC has positioned itself in the conflicts of the Middle East in post Arab Spring, conflictual realities of the Middle East as a significant actor in Iraq, in Yemen, in Syria, and this was an important achievement. It has reflected itself in the budget of the organisation 1/3 of everything we do is in that region. That was a significant challenge, we responded to the challenge. But it was also an achievement to maintain this operation, it was not self-evident.

A lot of people questioned at the outbreak and with the escalation of the Syrian conflict, as they do today, in the context of Ukraine, whether neutrality is a concept which is useful in those contexts. And I think, in a lesser extent, but still, we had similar discussions at certain moments in Iraq and in Yemen and in the Middle East overall. I believed in 2012 and 13 as I do today, that neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarianism is still a concept which has its validity. It’s an important principled approach to dealing with complex realities with which we deal today. If I may, Heba, I would even contradict your introduction and your notion that I have made ICRC more political. I may have been more outspoken on certain issues, I may have communicated more, I may have engaged more with political actors than presidents before. But engaging with political actors, for me, is not making the organisation more political. It's an important point because you are right, Heba, in mentioning this reality, because I was often accused of politicising the organisation. But for me, 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. And, that’s the ambivalence of humanitarianism since its inception in the 19th century, as has always been political engagement for neutral and impartial. And this kind of contradiction sometimes is ill-understood. And I do believe that if we managed during those 10 years something at the ICRC is maintaining the relevance of neutral and impartial humanitarianism, I have mentioned the Middle East as a particular conflict at the beginning of my mandate, I would mention Ukraine at the end of my mandate, and I would very frankly, also mention a couple of conflicts on the African continent in which it was not so self evident, in the context, for instance of counterterrorism, that neutrality was a viable concept which would find political acceptance.

Heba Aly

It's funny because especially in light of Ukraine, many would argue the opposite – that if anything, the ICRC has misread the world’s support for its supposed neutrality; that in fact, you know, the big uproar that was seen after you shook hands smiling with Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, reflected the fact that there wasn’t an understanding of the role of a neutral party in a conflict zone.

Peter Maurer

It's interesting, our aftermath sort of analysis shows the opposite. It shows that pictures and social media campaigns can emotionalise and divide operational theatres like Ukraine, and can mobilise populations with which you operate and work, can mobilise populations against you. That’s right. But that’s only the first part of the equation.

If we look at visibility and support for ICRC, the opposite happened on a global scale. Which means that in the aftermath of my visit to Ukraine and Moscow, we had an unseen outpouring of support financially, as well as in terms of support, which contradicts the amalgam that some may have wrongly made at that moment, that there was no understanding for humanitarians. There may have been no understanding for those Ukrainians who somehow were offended by the fact that the humanitarian shakes hands with a foreign minister of the country which just launched an attack on Ukraine. And I’m the first one to understand that this is something which triggers emotions. And I’m the first one to understand that this is not easy for populations affected. But in the broad scheme of things, I'm still rather surprised how resistant and resilient the support for neutral humanitarianism is worldwide. I have also to take into consideration that, yes, social media do emotionalise further and add another layer of complexity to problems and to contexts in which we operate. And, again, I do sympathise so much, having spoken myself and listening carefully to what my colleagues report on contacts with families, in both Russia and Ukraine, and families missing, people, families questioning whether their sons and fathers are alive in the prison of the respective other side. And I think I do very much understand that the logic of engagement and diplomacy and neutrality is a vocabulary, which goes and sits squarely with those emotional experiences that people have. And so we have to, to manage this situation, obviously, that’s a challenge. But overall, it doesn’t change my strong conviction that the template, as such, is extremely relevant still.

Heba Aly

So no regrets about that photo.

Peter Maurer

No, no. No regrets. There is anyway no point in having regrets. The other thing is that you are in conflict, reality and constant learning processes. In a context where besides the war, on the ground, in the air, and at sea, we have a war in cyberspace and space.

In those new realities you have to learn to cope and to deal with and to also, to adapt and calibrate communication accordingly. And this has been a learning organisation for the last 160 years, and we haven’t always made everything right. We make mistakes, we correct, we learn. That's important. And, and I think that the transformational character of the conflicts over the last 10 years made us faster learners than ever before because the number of new elements to deal with is just more important than ever before.

Heba Aly

So if I hear you it wasn’t a mistake to smile with the aggressor, but it was a mistake in how it was rolled out in this new social media environment.

Peter Maurer

Yeah, that's right. I mean, look, 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. 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.

Heba Aly

So if your biggest success at the ICRC over these past 10 years has been maintaining that space for neutrality, whether it’s in Syria, or in the Ukrainian Russia conflict, what do you see as your biggest failure?

Peter Maurer

The biggest preoccupation, after all those 10 years, is wherever we failed to negotiate access and to create that space. And when there’s no question that 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 the local dynamics, where we misread, or we were not able to read how and what to do in order to negotiate access to people and presence and perspectives to work into a system protect what is our mandate. And of course, you ask yourself constantly in those situations of blockage, what else can you do? And it remains an issue of frustration for many of us, including myself.

Heba Aly

Do you often feel powerless in your role?

Peter Maurer

I don’t think that as a president of ICRC, you have power in the sense of what listeners of a podcast think power is. 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. The key role of chief diplomat of this organisation is to find access points to influence power. It’s not to exert power, because it may sound like a philosophical nuance, Heba, but it is important. Power is a possibility to decide things this way or that way. You never have power as president of ICRC, you have a limited way of power within the institution. You can take some decisions this way or that way, but in terms of what humanitarianism is, you may exert influence if you play it well.

Heba Aly

So, give us a window into your inside world of diplomacy, who are you proud to have been able to influence in the kind of foreign diplomatic landscape and who was very difficult to negotiate with or influence?

Peter Maurer

When you deal with conflict, you have only difficult people. The nice belligerent, is a contradiction in itself. So…

Heba Aly

There aren’t like some, you know, funner foreign ministers to talk to?

Peter Maurer

They are fun, but when they come to business, they are the foreign ministers of a belligerent, or they are the foreign minister of a country which has interest. So, I think it is important to be sober and realistic. This is not a fun job. It’s a job which, because it's a diplomatic job, follows some standard diplomatic protocols of behaviour. You express yourself in a certain way and a certain language, and you are understood by the other side who has also gone to the same school of diplomacy. But in substance, there is no easy belligerent in the world. And it’s always the same 20 arguments which you will find as major roadblocks to your humanitarian work. It’s transactionalism instead of respecting the norms. It’s exceptionalism, meaning every representative of a belligerent will tell you why your adversary is particularly cruel, illegitimate, unjust, and whatever. And when you talk about norms and principles, they will tell you either that it’s not applicable to their context, or that these norms and principles will only be followed if the other side will follow it as well. And so these are just the basic lines of what we get very often. And then you get the whole contamination of any humanitarian diplomatic discourse on access, on security, on protection, on everything which is part of our agenda, you get the strong contamination by political symbolism. A foreign minister, minister of defence of a belligerent country will always consider what you bring to his table on whether this is respecting his sovereignty or infringing over his sovereignty to decide how he wants to run the war. And, I think these are some of the really big challenges. You see, security is a good example. Belligerents who do not want you to go into an area will tell you that they are concerned with your security. And, when something happens, they will tell you that they have nothing to do with that incident. So, I think you'll get pretty experienced, and I hope that can give you a an idea of the shrewdness of the situation, and the impossibility, very frankly, to qualify certain belligerence as easy, pleasant, or whatever. It's pretty heavy lifting. And it’s everywhere, basically the same. And even if you’ve seen losses in personality, at the end of the day, there is an intrinsic way how conflict and war shapes decision-makers, societies, setups in which you operate. And they are difficult.

Heba Aly

So you've talked a lot about using, you know, the tools at your disposal, the law, the norms around the rules of war, and that your role being to try to use them towards more positive outcomes. And yet your tenure has been defined by violations of international humanitarian law, again, in Syria, in Ukraine, beyond. And we see these continual pleas by yourself, by the ICRC more broadly, of respecting, you know, a plea to respect international humanitarian law that seemed to just be falling on deaf ears. So what are the levers in this day and age for encouraging respect for the rules of war?

Peter Maurer

Well, again, in the overall picture, I disagree, although I agree that we have seen outrageous violations of international law and international humanitarian law. But of course, the picture is always more differentiated when you look closer. There is enormous political support around the world for the normative system of the Geneva Conventions.

Heba Aly

Really?

Peter Maurer

Yes! I mean, I haven’t encountered in 10 years of activity, a minister of defence which would tell you that he thinks that these conventions are not guiding him. They…

Heba Aly

And yet he is happy to violate them with impunity.

Peter Maurer

He is – I’m not sure whether he is happy to violate them, but it shows you some of the complexity of running through the arguments with belligerents, and my sense is one of the big challenges for a humanitarian organisation is that, for some time, the dominant culture was to remind belligerents of the norm they need to respect and reminding them was seen as the most important focus of a humanitarian organisation’s activity. And this organisation has a strong and proud tradition of reminding everybody what the law is, and training everybody.

Heba Aly

But what happens when that’s not enough?

Peter Maurer

And that’s the point. I think there needs to be other stories told. I think we have made a major effort, for instance, to gather evidence for respect, because it’s also the question: Where do you focus the cameras? It’s important to focus the camera on violations, that's not a problem. But as a guardian of the Geneva Convention, you have also to get the full picture, to look where are conventions respected and why? What is happening when the front line is porous, and ambulances go to hospitals? What happens when access is granted? What are the factors which are conducive to respect? And when you talk with militaries around the world on factors conducive to respect, of course you can influence them. You can influence training, behaviours, and ground rules for military operations. And ICRC has done that in many respects. And I think it’s important to keep this dimension clearer. First, 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.

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 to better respect. For instance, all the engagement that we have done on behavioural studies, why does it come to breakdowns of normative systems in conflict? What happens exactly in the dynamic of a military operation, when the soldiers who have been trained to respect humanitarian law are not respecting? I think it’s important to look in detail to those breakdowns as well as to where it doesn’t happen, in order to be able to somehow inscribe your activities and your engagement in a longer and more strategic perspective. Again, Heba, it doesn’t take away what you rightly say is a huge problem. And how could I contest that it is a huge problem having seen all those hundreds of thousands of victims, which are, not all of them, but to a good part of them, victims of disrespect? And there is no question but I wanted to highlight that we need to keep perspectives open. Also, I don’t want to sound cynical, but 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. Hope alive comes from showing that it is possible, not by declaring failure.

Heba Aly

What gives you hope, more broadly, what has given you hope in this role?

Peter Maurer

Over the last 10 years, I always particularly focused on meeting arms bearers and belligerents. I wanted to meet the commanders in the places I visited and I wanted to meet the chief of staff of armed forces and the defence ministers, and while many of these discussions have been difficult, because of what we were just discussing, I was also encouraged by the fact that many of those who have responsible positions in armed forces and even in non state armed group are people who are responsible. They are not blind warriors. They are the least ones who radicalise and accentuate conflicts. And it’s a little bit of a surprise experience, very frankly, that I made because from my worldview, from whatever I brought to the job from beforehand, and in particular as a diplomat who has spent his life in diplomacy, I always thought that the diplomats were the peacemakers and the militaries were the warriors. I’m not so sure anymore after 10 years that this is the case. And I have found so many military commanders which I consider responsible, willing to do the best, willing to minimise negative impact for civilian populations, and that gives hope and that’s maybe the first part of my hope – of the hope perspective.

The second part is a little bit easier and more obvious. Seeing the strength, resilience, willingness to somehow find a way out of conflict, to talk to the neighbour, to reconcile, I have found that in so many communities, when I visited I was particularly proud that we were able to bring people together. I still believe that some of the most interesting projects that I have visited are projects where, because of the way we designed the project, communities which would not necessarily interact easily with each other, we’re interacting more easily. It’s the water station at the front line. It’s the kind of arrangement for access to markets for different ethnic groups that we were able to negotiate in some of the most protracted situations in the Sahel and in other places. So these are two strong elements of hope.

Look, I always say after 10 years, I’m not frustrated, but I am more disenchanted by what I have observed as political dynamics. And in what we normally refer to as the international community. I’m still somehow disenchanted by the mix of indifference, incapacity, and unwillingness to deal with some of the most critical issues of the world, be it war and conflict, be it complex realities – you alluded to climate change before – those hyper vulnerable contexts which, in my opinion, could so easily be brought to a better place, but are not because of this really unfortunate mix of, as I said, indifference, incapacity, unwillingness. You never know exactly what it is.

Heba Aly

But you've been on the other end of that, you've been in the position of the foreign minister. So what is the way forward? You know, we're going to be talking in this season about reimagining global governance towards a more equitable world order and if we're now in an inflection point historically, in the same way we were after World War II, and that's something new will emerge in this post Ukraine, post-COVID world. What is the way in which that indifference, that lack of willingness can be tackled?

Peter Maurer

If you have a possibility to take political decisions as a responsible in a government, you should take political decisions in a different way. We basically know where you have to put your resources. We basically know what some of the critical obstacles are. And you have a power to remove them if you are persistence, or at least, to lower the threshold of cooperation, of prevention, of dialogue, and negotiation.

Heba Aly

Who has the power to do that?

Peter Maurer

I think a lot of governments do have the power to do it. Even if we are sober, there is no one shot power to do it. But every government has a space to decide this way or that way. And I think, at the present moment, I would believe that the biggest task is that you should have as a prime minister, or a president, or a foreign minister, defence ministers, your primary objective is to remove obstacles, to cooperate, to negotiate, to bring the loose ends together.

Heba Aly

But as I say, you’ve been in politics, what’s the incentive for a politician to do that?

Peter Maurer

Well, as always, one incentive is, hopefully, that you get recognition politically for success in diplomacy. And not only on war. But the second is maybe just what makes political leadership more responsible is to look beyond the time horizon that you are in. That's…

Heba Aly

You’re just calling for good leaders, basically.

Peter Maurer

Yeah. I have fought too much in bureaucratic structures to underestimate the persistence and perdurance of bureaucratic political structures, which form a conundrum which is difficult to overcome, and which has its own dynamics of silos, not communicating and not doing the best out of a situation. Having said that, I also believe that we will be forced to move in another direction of leadership behaviour at all levels of institutions. Because I can’t see for the time being how we would finance the enormous cost that multiple vulnerabilities create. And I think at the ICRC, you are somehow at the end of recognising the enormous cost of conflict. When you see in terms of loss of revenue, infrastructure, economic advancement, and if you see some of the multiple complexities of crises that are building up and have been building up over the last decades, 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. And therefore, you need to somehow find a different type of consciousness and political leadership, it doesn't dispense very frankly, people at the community level in organisations like mine, to make their own effort and to carve out space for what you were doing. Because that’s sometimes a little bit of a difficulty also added. Being overwhelmed by the crisis and dimension of the crisis that we are experiencing, we are almost disempowering ourselves and passing the buck to new leadership, new avenues.

It won't work neither the one or the other way, if you don’t get more concerted bottom up top down pressure.

Heba Aly

You’ve talked about being very scared of the future, right? With these increasing, needs limited ability to respond, a system that cannot handle the scale. What is the future humanitarianism that you feel is needed?

Peter Maurer

I feel somehow that the traditional model won’t work anymore. I think the traditional operation, operational model of humanitarianism is some internationally recognised organisation, be it UN, Red Cross, and others collecting money to transform it into services for people somewhere. And I think we have come to an end of that model. You know, Heba, I don’t like the localisation template, because I think it's the other wrong approach, or it's yet another wrong approach to cope with a problem. But I'm convinced that there needs to be other interactions between local first responders and international supporters and national power dynamics in the context in which we are. And this will change humanitarianism, fundamentally. It may differ again from one context to another, and we both know that sometimes capacity at this or that level is an issue. But as a basic model, I don’t think that the traditional model will work unless it is more broadly rooted in local realities and that international support is somehow designed in a different way towards local operators.

Heba Aly

That’s funny you say that because somebody in the lead up to this interview, told me the ICRC always hated the Grand Bargain, they never bought into the localisation agenda. And you’ve just said so yourself, really. So how is this model different?

Peter Maurer

For me, the notion of localisation is somehow a double-edged sword. It comes with what ICRC and the Red Cross feels at ease with – it’s basically local responders and local dynamics – and that's not something I would contest. But, the localisation comes somehow with a simplistic understanding that while the predominant international template for humanitarian assistance is basically over, and you can just leave humanitarianism to local responders. And that works neither. And I have warned against the localisation template because I have seen that political movements in Europe and the northern hemisphere use localisation to de-responsiblise the rest, the non-local from local response. I know that the word is always charged, but I, for having nothing better, 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. The question is, what happens then, and localisation suggests that locals just say what they need and internationals just deliver what locals need. And that's too simplistic way. Again, we are in a complex world, we need reconciliation mechanisms between very different articulations of humanitarianism. Humanitarianism, in this city here, is articulated in a different way than in Somalia, or South Sudan, or Central African Republic. We have seen the limits of what the Grand Bargain has brought to the so-called localisation, it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because there are obstacles, and it doesn’t happen if we don’t attack these obstacles and we don’t understand the local, national, and global as a more complex interaction which you have to shape in a different way.

Heba Aly

Another compact coming up, I suppose.

Peter Maurer

I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I'm not a fan of... I think we are in a different stage of history. I'm very sceptical about grand bargains, less on bargains than on grand. And I’m very sceptical on overall frameworks showing the path forward.

Heba Aly

But what is going to be the path forward towards this new model or the new relationship to the international and local?

Peter Maurer

When we are in volatile, protracted complex conflict situation in which power dynamics are so foreseeable, then maybe we enter rather a period of exploration and of trying to bubble up and see what works. And, and I think the main mistake in approach is really to think that you can somewhere design the final model for the next stage of humanitarian work. While at the end of the day, the dominant force that I have seen at operation over the last 10 years is fragmentation, is the diversification of interests. And when there is diversification of interests, you need to give space to interests to converge again. And you need to give an exploratory space to try out new avenues and new formulas to test them to grow them. So, I think this is a phase of experimentation, and not of rushing to conclusions. Rushing to conclusions is the biggest mistake we always make. We think that situations are riper than they are. And if we are serious about the seriousness of the situation that we have analysed that in the present world, this situation is not ripe for deals. For big deals. This situation is here to see how we can prevent the worst, do the best, explore some new ways. That's very much the spirit in which I have approached, over the last years, this organisation. I wanted to see whether we have a capacity to innovate, to think new afresh, to take some new approaches in terms of, of partnering of new financial instruments of cooperation with uncommon institution with with with whom we wouldn't have partnered in the past, to see how we can leverage digital transformation for better humanitarian work, how we can connect people in a different way, because we have new ways of doing it. But from there, to having an acceptable framework is just so illusionary that I think it leads to frustration.

Heba Aly

I guess that's part of what you might be doing next. So this has been a very macro level conversation. I wanted to end with just a series of rapid fire questions that would be much more concrete, including what you might be doing next, but maybe we can start with: What crisis has marked you the most?

Peter Maurer

Syria.

Heba Aly

What are you most proud of in your tenure as ICRC President?

Peter Maurer

About the new humanitarian space we were able to negotiate.

Heba Aly

What's one thing you would have done differently?

Peter Maurer

I should have been tougher. In some of the contexts from the very beginning. I only got tougher over time.

Heba Aly

Oh, that makes me curious. Which conflict were you not tough enough in?

Peter Maurer

Well, it's internally and externally, when you come to an organisation, you will have a tendency to listen to people and appreciate what they say and what they do, and there is some value in it. But if I would have listened to instinct, I would have probably known that some of the conversations don’t lead anywhere. And therefore you have to cut it short.

Heba Aly

Who has impacted you or influenced you the most in these 10 years?

Peter Maurer

I would say if – front line workers and front line negotiators.

Heba Aly

Which city did you most enjoy jogging at at 5am? As I know you tend to do.

Peter Maurer

I would say probably Bangui.

Heba Aly

Jogging in Bangui?

Peter Maurer

Yes.

Heba Aly

Excellent.

Peter Maurer

It’s warm. It’s nice. It’s different. It’s along the river. I like very much mornings in Africa. And, it goes back also to my diplomatic career. My first posting was in South Africa. And, I have a special affinity to smells in the morning. And when you asked the question, I was looking for a place in Africa because five o’clocks in the morning in Africa are superb.

Heba Aly

Back to the rapid fire, what will be your legacy at the ICRC?

Peter Maurer

I’m not a legacy guy. I think, everybody talks about legacy. I have – I have done that job with a lot of engagement and passion.

Heba Aly

And pace. Your staff can't keep up with you, from what I hear.

Peter Maurer

Pace maybe. And that’s good enough. And the rest we will see.

Heba Aly

In one sentence, what do you think will be the biggest priority for humanitarianism in the next 10 years?

Peter Maurer

Changed mindset.

Heba Aly

When your mandate was renewed for a third term, it was extended until mid 2024. Why did you decide to step down early?

Peter Maurer

Because 10 years is a nice symbol.

Heba Aly

Really?

Peter Maurer

10 years is enough.

Heba Aly

What’s your advice for your successor?

Peter Maurer

No advice, she will be able to cope with problems. And I will hand her files over. But she is old enough, experienced enough, and good enough to embark on that trip.

Heba Aly

That’s one thing that surprised you when you came into the role?

Peter Maurer

I think the biggest surprise at the ICRC is the bifurcation of the organisation in a very dynamic and field-oriented, and victims-oriented part, and a very strong bureaucracy of 160 years of legacy. And I wouldn’t have thought that these two cultures coexist and sometimes compete so fiercely within the organisation. And it was a surprise discovery.

Heba Aly

What’s next for you?

Peter Maurer

Different things. I will have some academic work I’m doing. I will preside over the Basel Institute on governance. So happy about governance questions that you asked me. I will have one or two mandates from the private sector. And all this should give me a more quiet pace in the next couple of years, and still some possibilities to be tuned to what I have always cared about and that’s international relations and how the international community can do better.

Heba Aly

Should we expect a memoir in the years to come?

Peter Maurer

Not for the time being. Most likely not anyway, because I hate the concept of memoirs. But I have thought that was some of the experiences I’ve made over my professional career. I look forward to thinking more scientifically and systematically about what I have sometimes instinctively and, sometimes in the rush of the moment, decided. I’m not interested to be a president of a foundation or there as a governance function. I’m interested in the substance of issues.

And, so I look forward to something else.

Heba Aly

Peter Maurer, thank you very much.

Peter Maurer:

Thanks a lot.

Peter Maurer is the outgoing President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. His successor, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, takes over October 1st 2022.

Spoljaric, also a Swiss diplomat, will be the first woman to serve as ICRC President in the organisation’s 159-year history.

 

In this third season of Rethinking Humanitarianism, we’re going to be re-imagining global governance. Today’s humanitarian system is still very much influenced by the legacies of World War II, the League of Nations and the Bretton Woods conference. As we find ourselves at a similar inflection point, what opportunities does this moment present for a new world order?

We’ll explore alternatives to the UN , what more equitable trade could look like, and rethinking aid as reparations.

For today , we’ll leave you with a clip of Peter Maurer speaking on the future of global governance in a post-COVID world. In this panel from the Paris Peace Forum in 2021, Maurer calls out the global governance system for failing to respond to the needs of the most marginalised communities and calls on policymakers and institutions to bridge the gap.

If you’ve got thoughts on this episode, write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected] And my apologies to those of you who suggested questions that we weren’t able to get to in the interview. We made it through about half of those on the list.

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Melissa Fundira

Original theme music by Whitney Patterson

Audio engineering by Michael Stroudinsky and Lola Bastard

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Mind the gaps - Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC

“A global policymakers and global governance institutions have to take a much more serious look to be relevant for communities. And the scepticism comes from the fact that most of those marginalised those put to the margins, those experiences climate change at the front lines, don’t see any positive response from the global system. And I have very often the sense as a representative of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that these systems are almost autonomous. We have policy systems, which turn around policies and which turn around documents and framing policies which do not hit the ground and which do not have immediate impact. And so connecting an international national and local level in order for policies to come to the bottom is something which is really lacking at the present moment. And you started off this discussion with examples from the pandemic. It's definitely our experience than on the last mile of bringing vaccines to people. People experience international institution as highly ineffective and rightly so, because we know the figures of inequity and inequality. They see big conferences with commitments, but they see very little support, which is designed to what communities need and I think one of the big issues is really how we can reconnect the needs of communities with what policymakers in institutions decide and this will not happen through institutions only.”

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