Jakob Kellenberger, Reflections on the job
by Jean-François Berger
You have been president of the ICRC for 18 months, following
a diplomatic career in Switzerland. What made you join the
After more than seven years as Secretary of State for Foreign
Affairs, I was seeking a new challenge that would enable me
to put my professional experience to good use. Top of the
list, however, is that I identify closely with the ICRC's
What kind of experience do you mean?
Mainly negotiation and strategic thinking.
Before coming to the ICRC, had you already had any personal
or professional contacts with the Red Cross world?
Professional, in as much as Switzerland is the state depositary
of the Geneva Conventions.
How are you finding the move from a rather cocooned reality
- that of Swiss diplomacy - to one of conflicts?
I wouldn't describe my diplomatic life as Secretary of State
and head negotiator with the European Union as "cocooned"
... (Smile). The big difference is that I am now in direct
touch with the reality of armed conflicts and their human
consequences in the field ... to which I quite often go.
Where in particular?
Afghanistan, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Western Sahara, Algeria,
Russia, Colombia, to name but a few... It is in these places
that you understand the real challenges facing the ICRC. I
am thinking especially treading for that fine line between
being close to the victims and ensuring the vital security
of our staff.
Your predecessor Cornelio Sommaruga's motto was: "steadfastness,
rigour, humility". Do you have one of your own?
I am not one for mottos, but I do have great faith in the
power of will and I believe that every individual and every
human institution can find ways to improve.
Of your priorities for the ICRC, which do you hold dearest?
The ICRC's fundamental tasks are well known. What matters
is to carry them out in the best way possible and I intend
to contribute to that: that's my priority as president. I
would also like to help the ICRC establish a clear position
for itself in a constantly shifting humanitarian world. While
reaffirming its identity, the ICRC must also foster a spirit
of cooperation with other actors, notably with the Movement's
components. Indeed, being open to cooperation is the greatest
proof of confidence in one's own identity! In addition, it
is important to gradually put into practice the conclusions
of the report on women and war. Most of all I hope that we
can achieve greater respect for humanitarian law, for I was
horrified to discover the enormous gap between existing rules
and their implementation.
Have you any new ideas on how to reduce this gap?
The ICRC and the other components of the Movement are already
doing a lot. Humanitarian diplomacy must be used systematically
to achieve better application of humanitarian law. Above all,
states must clearly show that respect for this law is important
to them. I think the customary international law study*
will provide a basis to intensify our demands vis-à-vis
actors in conflicts, especially in internal conflicts. Reference
to certain customary rules could be very valuable to us in
our dialogue to make the parties to conflict assume their
How are relations between the ICRC and the European Union?
The European Union plays a political and security role whose
importance is growing and which will aim to be more effective
in conflict prevention. In this respect, the EU is looking
for strong partnerships with certain organizations, including
the ICRC. The ICRC sees this partnership above all as an ongoing
political dialogue with the different bodies dealing with
foreign affairs and security. What should this dialogue be
about? Mainly the support the EU can give to the ICRC's humanitarian
activities, the development of humanitarian law in certain
crisis areas. The EU has been called upon to play a greater
role in the political and humanitarian arena in the future,
so that this dialogue should also prove useful the day both
the EU and the ICRC find themselves on the same turf, but
with different rules of engagement. Basically, we need to
know each other well in good time.
And what about relations with NATO?
We know NATO well. In the field, the ICRC has had contacts
with NATO for five years, in particular with SFOR in Bosnia
and Herzegovina and more recently with KFOR in Kosovo.
Moscow, 30 March 2000: Jakob Kellenberger meets Vladimir
Putin, president of the Russian Federation.
*This study, commissioned by the 26th
International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent,
is due to be published at the beginning of 2002.
In fact, NATO can become a party to the conflict, as we saw
during its intervention in Kosovo...
True. For that reason, the ICRC has reminded NATO that its
forces are also bound to respect humanitarian law. Like others,
but without putting too fine a point on it, I don't like the
shortened term "humanitarian intervention" to describe
a military intervention, as it implies the use of force, a
notion that does not sit well with "humanitarian".
However, I have no problem with the idea of a "military
intervention for humanitarian purposes". A political-military
operation can have a humanitarian dimension, such as, for
example, enabling the return of refugees and displaced people,
restoring law and order or creating an environment in which
humanitarian agencies can work.
Since you took office at the ICRC, what have been the
main difficulties you have encountered?
My constant concern is staff security. The tragic and brutal
killing of six ICRC staff members on 26 April in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo was a terrible shock and very traumatic.
The year 2000 was relatively stable on the security front,
so the murder of our colleagues was a harsh reminder of the
risks of working in the heart of a conflict zone today.
Is there any other issue that has required a particular
commitment from you?
The emblem issue, which has remained unresolved for too long.
We urgently need to find a solution that will enable the Magen
David Adom and other societies to become full members of the
Movement. At the beginning of September 2000, the huge progress
made since the beginning of the year meant that we had a real
chance of achieving our objective by the end of the year.
Unfortunately, the rise in tensions in the Middle East after
28 September disrupted the timetable set by the Movement to
resolve the issue. Creating the conditions for the full participation
of all the societies in the Movement is still a priority for
me, despite the current difficulties.
Today, the ICRC is active in some 30 conflict areas. Which
of these concerns you most from a humanitarian point of view?
What worries me most is the number of conflicts that have
been going on for a very long time, as brutal as ever, without
the vaguest hint of a political solution. These are the cases
where the lack of political will of the parties involved is
blatant and where the international community has little interest
in finding a solution. At the same time, I appreciate the
exceptional motivation one must have to pursue a humanitarian
career day after day in contexts as intractable as these.
In the current climate, what is your vision for the Movement
and how do you see it evolving? What might be its greatest
hurdles and priorities for the 21st century?
The Movement adopted a Plan of Action before I became president
of the ICRC and that is still valid. For me, the Movement,
as a network of privileged cooperation between strong and
competent partners, has a clear potential. It is important
in this context that there is solidarity between the components
of the Movement and that those who encounter difficulties
are supported. It is also important that the cooperation agreements
established, notably Seville, are respected. Lastly, we must
improve the compatibility of the management processes of the
Movement's components, as has already been done with logistics
and communication, while respecting each other's identities.
Moreover, I was struck, during my several visits, by the
diversity of the activities of the National Societies in their
local contexts, the common denominator being the relevance
of the Movement's fundamental principles.
Are you happy with the current state of relations with
Relations between the two institutions are very good, judging
by the spirit of cooperation and the extent of the complementarity
that exists. I'd also point to the mutual desire of both institutions
to work in the interests of effective humanitarian action.
ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent.
Interview made on 1 March and 1st Mai 2001
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