After two years on the job, ICRC President Peter Maurer reflects on the future of humanitarian aid and his role as the ICRC’s top humanitarian ambassador.
The first two years of Peter Maurer’s tenure as ICRC president have been intense ones. To get to know its operations and the humanitarian challenges it faces, the former Swiss ambassador to the United Nations has ridden a canoe up the Piñuña Negro River in Colombia, visited orphanages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and seen where volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent prepare their ambulances for missions across front lines. Among many other visits. When not in the field, he has travelled to nearly every capital of global diplomacy, where he has met with leaders such as United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In areas where ICRC operates, he has engaged key actors such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others with influence over the course of ongoing conflicts. Red Cross Red Crescent magazine caught up with Maurer recently to talk about what he’s learned so far and what he thinks of the challenges ahead.
RCRC: What are your impressions after two years at the ICRC?
Maurer: I have been very impressed by the dedication of ICRC staff and by all the volunteers and personnel of the National Societies. It is very motivating to belong to a Movement with so many committed people.
Of course, there have been disconcerting images as well that I hadn’t ever been confronted with as a diplomat: seeing the wounded in provisional hospitals in Syria; seeing the effect of the closures in Gaza; looking at the thousands of children in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have lost trace of their parents. There is a constant mix between disconcerting experiences and encouraging ones as you feel how much people appreciate the work of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.
What is the humanitarian impact of these trips?
Responding to the humanitarian needs of people and ensuring the support for ICRC’s action is a crucial task for ICRC and thus for the president. Visiting operations and engaging with political and diplomatic decision-makers is therefore a key function of the president. It’s about negotiating and expanding access to populations in need and therefore expanding the surface of operations of ICRC. It’s about trying to influence key stakeholders to respect international humanitarian law (IHL) and to anchor the organization within new countries that haven’t traditionally been involved in international humanitarian work.
At the same time, engaging with political leaders allows the ICRC to be much more precise in the way it engages its humanitarian response. Restrictions to access are the restrictions of politics upon humanitarian action. So the interaction of the ICRC president, with the legitimacy of the organization’s specific international mandate, can have a positive impact in bringing humanitarian issues to the political agenda.
What do you do when you confront roadblocks?
Humanitarian diplomacy is a long process. You can’t expect from one meeting that things just fall into place. I had a very good conversation with President Assad more than a year ago, for example. But some of the objectives we talked about have not yet materialized, such as full access to detention facilities. It doesn’t mean that it won’t materialize, that this is a failure of humanitarian diplomacy. It means that things have been more complicated and therefore require another try. Humanitarian diplomacy is always a long-haul exercise.
This year, we mark the 100th anniversary of the first Geneva Convention. What are the key challenges, threats and opportunities for international humanitarian law looking forward?
There are many different angles to this question. That is why it is critical to ensure that the interpretation and development of IHL continue to keep pace with and evolve alongside the changing conflict environment. How do technologically advanced weapons such as drones and automated weapons relate to the legal framework of IHL? We need to consider whether the current framework is a sufficient guide or whether it needs interpretation or development.
Another is the debate on the definition of the modern battlefield. Is the battlefield still geographically circumscribed? Or is it simply moving with the armed actors? Is there a global battlefield in the ‘war on terrorism’ or is the battlefield still limited to certain precise places where military operations are taking place?
Patterns of violence are also changing. Increasingly, we see situations in which unstructured armed groups are equipped and behave as if they were armed actors in the traditional sense: criminal networks that have military capabilities similar to structured armies or armed groups.
When armed conflict and law enforcement are intertwined, we debate about the applicable legal framework — IHL or human rights law — and how to ensure that armies and armed actors understand their responsibility with regards to both IHL and human rights law.
We have to remember, however, that the key objective of both legal systems is to protect people. A possible lack of clarity about the legal reading should thus never lead to a lack of protection. And we should never get into a situation where the mitigation of the impact of violence is not undertaken just because the types of violence might fall under this or that legal box.
How about technology?
How will new technology shape humanitarian action in coming years? I believe that the big jump in technology affecting humanitarian action is still in front of us. Many of the humanitarian agencies and organizations have basically been using modern technologies as information management systems or to speed up deliveries. We are better informed, and informed more quickly, and therefore can design operations more accurately.
In coming years, we will most likely see information systems transform the way we deliver assistance and this will affect the role of intermediaries such as National Societies, the ICRC and the IFRC alike. Victims of conflict and natural disaster will be increasingly connected and have a greater say in organizing relief and delivery of supplies themselves.
Are there downsides to this trend?
One of the critical issues will be how these developments affect neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action. Some communities may be able to connect to the world and respond to their needs through solidarity with communities elsewhere in the world. But you may have other communities that are less connected and where equity becomes an issue. Also, in natural disasters, which capture the imagination of a lot of people, there may be an easier environment for this kind of connectivity to succeed. In protracted conflict, however, aid may unplug after a couple of weeks if no intermediaries are present.
What will humanitarian action look like in the next 20, 30 or even 50 years?
I am not sure that the nature of humanitarianism is something that allows us to project 30 and 50 years ahead. I think of the future, not as a static or stable reality for which you can prepare but rather as an environment requiring constant adaptations in the ways and means with which we respond. It will require agility, innovation and flexibility. Therefore, I am more interested in how we can be more rapid in our response, more accurate in how we deliver aid and more flexible in responding to very context-specific situations.