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Changing times,
big challenges


IN THE 12 YEARS that Jakob Kellenberger has been president of the ICRC, the humanitarian landscape has changed dramatically. The attacks of 11 September 2001, the resultant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continued rise of non-state armed groups and the increased use of new, high-tech weapons have posed serious new questions for humanitarian values and action. As Kellenberger prepares to step down as president this year, RCRC magazine asked him to reflect on the challenges and the achievements of the past 12 years, as well as his concerns and hopes for the future.

At the recent Red Cross Red Crescent International Conference, significant new resolutions were adopted regarding international humanitarian law (IHL). How do we make sure the momentum on IHL continues?
Common Article 1 of the Geneva Convention says that states should not only respect the rules but also ensure respect by others. There is a big question whether this is a legal or a moral obligation but in any case that is something we must continue to work on and use as a basis for engaging with governments or other entities. The directives adopted in recent years by the European Union [intended to enhance compliance with particular aspects of IHL among member states] are an encouraging example.

Given modern technologies and the possibilities that civil society has to have its own voice, there is also considerable potential to mobilize public opinion about IHL, health care in danger and other humanitarian concerns. But then you also need to inform the public in a way that allows people to make their own judgements and to become aware of the challenges.

And then there will also be the painful and difficult need to intervene directly with parties to a conflict. When you see they are about to violate the rules of war, or have already done so, you have to make direct interventions.

This is a particular challenge with non-state armed actors. We must succeed in having a more structured dialogue with non-state armed actors, and that is not easy because it is much more difficult to get access to them. The groups are also less structured and it’s difficult to know the structures that do exist. But it’s not enough to only work with states and get them to respect the rules.

What were some of the positive steps you’ve seen in the last decade at the ICRC?
We have increased our access to people in need of assistance and protection and our scope of action — adjusting to the changing environment and new operational realities — has clearly expanded since 2000. Our capacity for rapid deployment has also grown and we have a clear strategic framework.

As a consequence, the ICRC has grown a lot in terms of staff and budget. That was one more challenge and the question can be asked: to what extent is this possible while keeping a strong corporate identity—not forgetting that we also were pushing quite hard to diversify and internationalize our workforce. To be frank, I never seriously doubted we would meet this challenge.

The legal work carried out during all these years has also been remarkable, first to defend the existing rules of IHL under the pressure from war-on-terror rhetoric and, afterwards, in working out proposals for the further development of treaty law, which is applicable mainly in non-international armed conflicts.

What have been some of the main lessons learned?
In the so-called humanitarian world — ICRC included — there is often too much jargon and not enough precise language. This matters: the language you use determines to a considerable extent the perceptions you have. And the perceptions you have determine to a large extent the actions you envisage or undertake.

One lesson we had to learn was not only to do — which is indeed the most important thing — but also to explain in an understandable way what we are doing and why. For example, we’ve made progress in terms of conceptual positioning on the issue of internally displaced people, where we had difficulty making ourselves understood, and in terms of explaining ICRC’s activities and role in the early recovery phase of emergency operations.

The lesson I learnt from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 was that the ICRC had considerable added value and a corresponding responsibility in natural disasters in areas of conflict or tension. The swift, determined and massive action after the earthquake in South Asia in October 2005 demonstrated convincingly that the lesson had been learnt — thoroughly learnt.

The humanitarian sector as a whole has also grown significantly in the past 12 years. How do you feel this diverse sector is responding?
The humanitarian label has become more attractive. That is a positive development, provided the presence of more actors and increased competition lead to the improvement of humanitarian services in the field and are accompanied by a sincere commitment to transparency where it matters for efficient coordination.

A big problem is that humanitarian organizations don’t always make a clear distinction between talk and action, between what they intend to do and what they in fact do. This not only hampers coordination but can lead to the misleading impression in some contexts that there are a lot of actors where there are, in fact, very few. It would also be in the interest of transparency if humanitarian organizations were always clear if they are themselves active in the field or if they work through so-called implementing agencies.

It is fashionable to talk about accountability and coordination and leadership. Accountability matters indeed, especially with regard to operational efficiency and with regard to beneficiaries and donors. However, to be the best at filling in a maximum of documents at the detriment of action cannot and should not be the priority.

We need much more transparency to make coordination effective. But transparency is only relevant as a tool to better meet the needs of those we have to protect and assist. For coordination to be effective, you really have to know the capacities of the respective actors in the field.

I also see an increase in the blurring of lines between emergency action, early recovery and development activity. And I think all humanitarian organizations have to make up their minds quite clearly to what extent they see themselves as actors in emergency situations or whether they see themselves no longer as humanitarian organizations in a traditional sense but leaning towards development.

In spite of all the talks, all the discussions, the humanitarian community as a whole is pretty far from having a common understanding of what humanitarian action means nowadays. Effective coordination with multiple actors is difficult without seeing eye-to-eye on some basic concepts.

You have also worked to develop partnerships. Why is this important and what are the challenges?
It is important that National Societies see us as true and equal partners. I think that has developed well. We now have special partnership agreements with a group of National Societies and some are even included in our rapid-deployment mechanism. I think the humanitarian landscape will continue to develop in this way and there will be new partnerships inside and outside the Movement.

But to have close partnership you have to see eye-to-eye on the principles and look at which organizations are really efficient in terms of professional and logistical capacities. For example, with Médecins sans Frontières, one of the benchmarks in the humanitarian field, there is further scope for developing partnership. So I think there is a wide scope for partnership in the humanitarian arena as long as it reinforces the impact of our humanitarian action.

Is partnership more important now than before?
The ICRC has a good reputation in terms of access and rapid deployment. But there are a lot of things that we could not do without very reliable National Society partners — take Afghanistan or Somalia as examples.

In the future, the role of local humanitarian organizations such as the National Societies will go even further for practical and also for political reasons, mainly the so-called sovereignty concerns of some states. It is important for the IFRC and the ICRC to support National Societies to get stronger because these partnerships are going to become even more important.

Another interesting trend is that the traditional humanitarian model of western or northern countries aiding ‘non-developed’ countries is starting to shift. What does this mean for humanitarian action?
Non-western humanitarian organizations will play a much more important role in the future, but maybe more on a regional than a global level. As far as financing of humanitarian action on a global level is concerned, it continues to depend to a very large extent on traditional western donor countries.

Traditional international humanitarian organizations, whose headquarters are based in the West, may well continue to play an important role, but what this role will be exactly is an open question. The fact is that some of them already depend to a large extent on local humanitarian actors to carry out the tasks on the ground. The increased competition for the services of implementing partners speaks to this fact.

There are important questions in store for the traditional international humanitarian organizations. Will they have to change their services? Will they become advisers or service providers? The western aid organizations will have to focus reflection on their added value — and this value will have to be proven in a more competitive environment.

Might this be a hopeful trend as well?
Yes, this is good provided the actions of the new local and international actors are led by the basic humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and, above all, impartiality — that the assistance is provided exclusively on the basis of self-assessed needs. That is critically important.

Which global trends concern you most and which give you hope?
Among the bright potentials, I place some hope in the idea that, with modern information technology, it could be much easier to mobilize civil society for principles that are close to the heart of humanitarians.

What I’m worried about is that there is still an increase in expenditure on weapons. Think only of all the weapons sold to the Gulf area or look at the trade in arms worldwide. It doesn’t look as if states are preparing for a more peaceful world. We also have a deepening of inequality in terms of the levels of income and fortune between and within states. There clearly is potential for conflict in this widespread development.

How can the humanitarian sector influence those issues?
Part of being responsible is to be clear what you are able to do and what you are not able to do. Humanitarian organizations need to focus on people in need of assistance and protection. That is their core job. Conflict prevention is another job, development is another, and social justice another. First, fulfil the core responsibility. You have to have a wide perspective, but I believe that if all actors focus on their core responsibility, we will see a lot of improvement in terms of humanitarian impact.

This being clear, more operationally minded thinking about the emergency humanitarian action–early recovery–development link seems important to me not least in order to have more clarity on who is really capable of acting on the ground when.

One of the seminal events during your tenure was the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What do you feel has been the humanitarian legacy of these events?
First, these criminal attacks were a real tragedy and should not be forgotten.

The reaction to them proved to me once more the power of political rhetoric which can disrupt value systems you thought were solidly established.

It was sufficient to qualify the people brought to Guantànamo as the ‘worst of the worst’ to spread the message that you can treat them however you wish.

The effects of this mindset could be seen in places like Guantànamo or Abu Ghraib. One of the lessons: never feel too sure when people talk about values in relaxed times. Check how they act under stress. At the same time, I shall not forget that steady improvements can be achieved through unbending tenacity.

Nor shall I forget that the United States never tried to avoid a very difficult dialogue. Nor did it ever threaten the ICRC with diminishing its financial support if the organization did not show more understanding for ‘ticking bomb’ arguments [the notion that torture could be justified in cases where there is an imminent threat to human life] and the like.

As far as the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) to the fight against terrorism is concerned, I hardly could imagine in the years following 2001 that the US Supreme Court would declare in 2006 that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions was applicable to the war between the US and al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

[The court found that military commissions established during the Bush administration violated Common Article 3’s guarantee that persons “placed hors de combat” by being detained had the right to a “regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees recognized as indispensable by civilized people”.]

It was also difficult to imagine in 2001 that only ten years later the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent would unanimously adopt a resolution strengthening the legal protection for victims of armed conflicts — a decision reiterating that international humanitarian law remains as relevant today as ever before in armed conflicts.

We have come a long way from the position expressed by the Bush administration back in 2001 that the so-called ‘global war on terror’ was a new type of war to which the Geneva Conventions were not applicable. This being said, the ICRC also learnt a lot from the tough dialogue on legal matters with the US and some of the ICRC’s proposals to develop the law would hardly exist without it.

What are some of the most meaningful lessons that you personally will take away from your experience during the past 12 years?
 The individual human being has always been very much at the centre of my philosophical beliefs. Societies in my view should be framed in such a way that they promote individual development as fully as possible. Before joining the ICRC, I was not fully aware to what extent humanitarian action was in perfect harmony with this more abstract conviction. The life, health and dignity of every human being are critical concepts in themselves and I was often impressed to see this belief transformed in action.

A lasting truth for me is the importance of trying to take the perspective of people whose life or dignity are threatened and who have no real support. It will never be possible to put yourself in the situation of the people in these circumstances. But a sincere effort of imagination based on what you have seen in the field is sufficient to be convinced that what may appear to be a small step for you in your comfortable situation can be an important improvement for those affected by armed conflicts.

The study of ICRC reports by delegates visiting people who are detained provides a particularly useful lesson in this respect. And I shall certainly not forget the tenacity of ICRC staff who, after having achieved one step, were already thinking of the next one. That’s what I like most in the ICRC: it is about action, not about big, often misleading words.

Often the progress we make as humanitarians working on big issues such as implementation of IHL happens slowly. How do you, and all of us in the Movement, keep the faith as we try to put the new resolution adopted at the International Conference into action?
It is very rare that you make big steps in a short period. The big lesson for me from the past 12 years is that you simply have to show a lot of tenacity. You have to come back again and again.

My experience is that slow progress and small steps do not create problems of motivation at the ICRC. The prevailing experience is that persistent action makes a difference. The difference can be small, it can take time, but you can make a difference.

In your keynote speech at the International Conference, you noted that the impact we make in terms of IHL is difficult to measure, but that we can imagine what war would be like without it.
We hear about IHL when it is being violated, but we do not hear about the more frequent cases when it is being respected. It is important to have that in the back of your mind — to get the proportions right and not fall into a useless pessimism. And I do feel that through our combined efforts, not just by the ICRC, a lot of violations are being prevented.

Jakob Kellenberger.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Denis Balibouse, courtesy,






“I do feel that through our combined efforts, many violations of international humanitarian law are being prevented.”




















“It was also difficult to imagine in 2001 that only ten years later the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent would unanimously adopt a resolution strengthening the legal protection for victims of armed conflicts — a decision reiterating that international humanitarian law remains as relevant today as ever before in armed conflicts.”



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