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Cornelio Sommaruga
Interview by
Jean-François Berger
Cornelio Sommaruga
12 years at the ICRC's helm
Twelve years ago, you took up the post of ICRC president. On the eve of your departure, is there any question you would like to be asked?
How do you achieve better respect for international humanitarian law?

What is your view on the subject, given the countless violations of this law? Do you think the Geneva Conventions should be adapted?
I don't think this powerful testament to humanity needs to be touched. The most important issue is respect for this law. This respect depends on awareness of the law's existence in political circles and among the general public and on knowledge of its provisions among those responsible for its application, chiefly the armed forces and police.

This being said, humanitarian law can be enriched by ad hoc agreements, for example, the protocol prohibiting the use of blinding laser weapons or the Ottawa landmine treaty. These are additional elements to the law of Geneva. The dissemination of the fundamental principles and humanitarian law must be a priority for the whole Movement.

Should the Movement, and the ICRC in particular, become more involved in weapons issues?
The extremely serious problem confronting us now concerns the widespread availability of arms and its consequences for the civilian population, an issue on which the ICRC has recently carried out a study. The Movement must remain alert to these questions, by helping to make governments aware of their responsibility, when transferring arms, to ascertain that their use conforms with humanitarian law. Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, which requires that one respect and ensure respect for humanitarian law, also applies to arms exports!

What are the significant milestones/decisive turning points that have marked your ICRC presidency?
I would start with the ICRC's huge growth in terms of its staff, its budgets and the number of its delegations. In qualitative terms, I would mention the improvements in staff training and a better integration of National Society staff in our institution, not forgetting the Avenir("Future") process to reform the ICRC. All of this, of course, was influenced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and its unforeseen repercussions: an increase in the number of conflicts. In this new international environment, the UN has undertaken many more peacekeeping and peace-restoration operations.

Lastly, there was the huge surprise of 1999 with regard to Kosovo, when we saw a defensive military alliance for the first time in its history carry out a military action against a sovereign state in order to ensure respect for human rights and humanitarian law.

Is the expansion of ICRC activities a result of the increase in the number of conflicts in the world?
I don't think so. The reason lies mostly in the need to reach all the victims at a moment in history when whole regions that were off-limits during the Cold War have opened up to the ICRC, beginning with the former Soviet Union.
You have often made your position known on the "humanitarian alibi" and the right of intervention. Have your views on this changed at all?
No, they haven't. But there are two points worth elucidating. The "humanitarian alibi", which developed almost simultaneously at the beginning of the 1990s in Somalia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is when certain states encourage humanitarian organizations - especially those of the UN - to act under the protection of peacekeeping troops. In my view, this practice does not help resolve the political problems nor does it create a humanitarian space in which those with the mandate can reach the victims. As for the right of intervention, what bothers me is that a right of "humanitarian" intervention is invoked. This concept has often been presented as an external armed intervention with the aim of bringing humanitarian assistance. This in itself is a problem and differs from military intervention in a given situation governed by jus ad bellum,on which it is not my place to comment.

At this time of globalization and the reawakening of identities, how universal are humanitarian values?
The ethical values contained in the fundamental principles of the Movement and in the Geneva Conventions find their source in different traditions and religious movements. Of course, the Geneva Conventions were conceived in a region that belongs to the Judaeo-Christian world, but I also know that respect for human dignity is at the heart of all civilizations.

Have you any regrets?
I regret that I couldn't do more for all the victims, notably to facilitate our access to them. I would also have liked to create a sort of ICRC "passport" at a time when our staff is becoming increasingly international. This passport would enable us to lose our national identities and link us more to the institution, which has a legal base that guarantees its independence.

I am also sorry that the strengthening of cooperation between the different components of the Movement, especially with the Federation, came so late, that is, in Seville in 1997.

Lastly, during my presidency I visited some 100 National Societies, which is not enough for a Movement that numbers 176 of them.

Do you think you made any mistakes?
Doubtless I did, like everybody does. However, it is up to others to judge. Perhaps I spoke too openly to the media on some occasions, by taking a public position on some issues that could have compromised our operations. Therein lies the paradox of my presidency, as I also think I contributed to intensifying the media's interest in the ICRC.

Interview by Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of the Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

Jakob Kellenberger will become President of the ICRC as of 1 Januray 2000. He will take over from Cornelio Sommaruga for a period of four years with a possibility of renewal. Jacques Forster became Vice-President of the ICRC on 1 August 1999 following the departure of Eric Roethlisberger.
What were your most difficult moments as president?
The loss of some of our staff members. I'm thinking especially of the delegates murdered in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 and in Burundi and Chechnya in 1996.

You are a tireless ambassador for the humanitarian cause, and as such you have invested yourself enormously. How have you managed to keep up this frenetic rhythm for 12 years?
Luckily, my parents endowed me with a solid physical and mental constitution! My family has also helped me greatly in absorbing the shocks that came with my mission. The ICRC, beginning with its staff, is also a great stimulant in terms of commitment.

What are for you the main strengths and weaknesses of the Movement?
The strengths reside in the National Societies, notably in the commitment of their volunteers and professionals in the field. The weaknesses are a lack of financial rigour and the politicization of certain National Societies. This is a challenge for the ICRC, which must help them to remain independent.

Is the role of "overseer" of National Societies, which belongs to the ICRC and the Federation, genuinely fulfilled?
The existing statutory instruments are sufficient. But the implementation of the legal provisions still needs to be consolidated, despite some progress and corrective measures noted over the last 12 years. Each problematical situation needs to be handled rapidly and objectively.

What in your opinion are the priorities for the Movement in the next ten years?
I am by nature an optimist. So, for me the Movement's prospects are on the scale of the enormous needs of the victims of armed conflict and natural disasters. The Movement's success and efficacy relies intimately on the people who are called on to lead it. It is therefore essential that these leaders be motivated by the mandates they have the task of accomplishing: honesty, professionalism and creativity must be at the heart of their commitment.

What are your future projects, particularly in the humanitarian field?
I am going to leave the ICRC and the Red Cross. I have a few projects in mind, but it is too early to talk about them.

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