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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
How can the humanitarian sector influence those
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
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
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
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
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
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.