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The ICRC’s new Director General

His eyes narrow, giving nothing away as he studies the person facing him; it’s the hands
that express his personality. Alternating between Italian volubility and military imperiousness, they outline concepts, brush aside counter-arguments, and give shape to grandiose plans. Could the beard, like a Swiss Guard’s at the Vatican, be false? No indeed: it’s as genuine as the man himself. Paul Grossrieder is a blend of restrained joviality, single-minded tenacity and contagious dynamism - the ideal person to be Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Paul Calybite Grossrieder was born in Charmey, Switzerland in 1944. He was educated at the Collège Saint-Michel in the city of Fribourg. After leaving school with a diploma in classics, he joined the Dominican order and earned his degree in philosophy at La Sarte in Belgium in 1967.

As a Dominican friar, he obtained his degree in theology from the University of Fribourg. Subsequently, the Dominicans sent him to be the assistant priest of the parish of St Paul in Geneva in 1970. He accepted the post on condition that he could enrol at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, where he received his diploma in political science four years later and began working on his doctorate.

Grossrieder chose the Holy See and sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the 19th century as the subject for his doctoral thesis. He worked in the Vatican archives researching his thesis for six months, when he was called to the Vatican’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to serve as an adviser. He also wrote for the newspaper Osservatore Romano from 1976 to 1978, and completed his doctorate in 1983.

He then left the Dominican Order and considered for a while becoming a journalist based in Rome after receiving his doctorate, but in the end he applied for a post at the ICRC. Thinking he was too old (39), the organization initially turned him down. His application was rescued after someone learned of his unusual career path. His first assignment was in Baghdad in 1984.

In 1985, he was promoted to Deputy Head of Delegation in Angola. He then became a desk officer within the Africa zone, Head of Delegation in Israel in 1986, Deputy Delegate General for Asia in 1989, Delegate General for Asia a year later, and finally, in 1990, Deputy Director of Operations, the ICRC’s flagship department.

Last May, Paul Grossrieder was appointed to the newly created post of Director General. This was a godsend for an institution plagued by excessive compartmentalization. Grossrieder explains: “I’m almost pathologically attached to Operations!” — the department that works directly for the victims of conflicts, and keeps strategy firmly grounded in reality.

Serge Bimpage
This text was adapted from an article which appeared in La Tribune de Genève on
18 June 1998.

“The future of the Movement”

Paul Grossrieder’s point of view:

“The Red Cross Movement has changed considerably in recent years. When I started working here, there was a split between the ICRC and the rest of the Movement. And I think it was around that time that the term “Movement” had just been adopted.
Nowadays, however, the ICRC clearly can’t operate without the rest of the Movement. There’s hard evidence of this in the operational efficiency deriving from the network of National Societies. In conjunction with them, we’ve set up an extensive system of “sub-contracting”. As for our relations with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we have recently reorganized the distribution of our respective tasks along much more operational lines than was previously the case.

At a time when the word “networking” hovers on everybody’s lips, the Movement is definitely in the forefront. After all, we now have 175 National Societies for 192 countries! But we mustn’t forget that a network of this sort can give of its best only on one condition: every component must remain true to its own calling. In other words, it must preserve its own identity while pursuing the aims of the Movement. All this is set out in black and white in the Seville agreement. In conflict situations, the ICRC takes the lead. In other situations, it’s for the Federation or the National Societies to do so. Even so, we’ve naturally held on to certain specific activities such as the dissemination of international humanitarian law, the protection of prisoners of war and security detainees, and the restoration of family links.

As for the future, the success of the Movement, and that of the ICRC, depends entirely on the smooth running of the whole network. It’s exactly like the globalization process. We’d be making a big mistake to think that “we Swiss” can go it alone in the world, and we really have to abandon this inward-looking attitude. But that is not incompatible with the fact that, despite the ICRC’s policy of recruiting staff of other nationalities, the membership of the Committee must remain entirely Swiss.” S.B.

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