In this interview, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, defended his organization’s decision to remain in cooperation with the Syrian government to bring much-needed humanitarian aid to all of Syria, including those areas held by the opposition.
“ICRC decided at the beginning of the conflict—and we have remained with this decision—to work out of Damascus and in close cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC),” he said, adding that “there is no alternative to SARC: if you want still to reach as many people as ever possible in Syria, it has been designated as the sort of official interlocutor of any foreign aid.” Mr. Maurer acknowledged there were gaps in reaching certain populations, and “we should do everything possible to fill those gaps.”
“ICRC is also convinced that, with regard to the legal frameworks of the Geneva Conventions and of UN resolutions, humanitarian organizations have to come in support of governments, and not substitute the activities of governments, who are the first responders in a specific crisis,” he said.
He said that “with the fighting spreading and increasing number of people affected by the fighting, at the present moment, our frustration is we do not know precisely what the dimension of the problem is.”
Mr. Maurer said the most difficult questions he faces are around making sure ICRC staff has access and is safe. “How can we ensure access with reasonable risk taking for our operators? Where is the threshold to decide to do an operation, or to decide that it is too risky?”
“It’s a difficult issue, because at the end of the day, it’s the security of your own staff against the needs of populations which you are continuously trying to trade off, and to find credible answers each and every day. “
Mr. Maurer said that changes in the definition of “battlefield” have raised questions about how international humanitarian law should evolve. “I would say there are legions now of issues and questions, which at least need a serious debate among experts, professionals, but also state parties to the Geneva Conventions, in order to define where to carry the development of international humanitarian law further.”
He also said the hundreds of other humanitarian actors have changed the humanitarian landscape, and that the ICRC is balancing keeping with its tradition and principles while at the same time, “being open to more innovative forms and formats of humanitarian action.”
Mr. Maurer said one of his main concerns is to make sure humanitarian law and actions are taken into consideration by key actors in the international arena. Mr. Maurer hopes “to impress on them that mutual humanitarian action needs not the mingling of politics, but needs political support for its independence stance.”
The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I am here today with Mr. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an institution with which I have a special connection, since it is where I gained my humanitarian credentials. Mr. Maurer, thank you very much for joining the Global Observatory today.
The ICRC celebrates this year its 150th anniversary, an occasion for the institution to reflect on past, present, and future humanitarian challenges. We will discuss some of these challenges today. But before going into this broad discussion, I’d like to ask you first, a few questions on Syria, which is on everybody’s mind today that encapsulates a number of these challenges.
There is currently a heated debate within humanitarian circles about how to deliver aid to populations in rebelled-controlled areas in the north of the country. Some aid agencies recently denounced the imbalances of humanitarian assistance that would go mainly to government-held areas, and called for stepping up humanitarian operations across borders in opposition-controlled areas, and thus despite objections from the Syrian government. What is the position of the ICRC which operates from Damascus and with the consent of the government in this debate?
Peter Maurer: Thanks, first and foremost, for having me for this interview, and to talk at the occasion of the 150th birthday of ICRC. With regard to the question you raise, let me first and foremost say that ICRC is as much frustrated, whether we talk about Syria or any other conflict, when we do not reach the populations in need. And there is no question that in Syria, there are populations and regions which we do not reach in a satisfactory way.
ICRC decided at the beginning of the conflict—and we have remained with this decision—to work out of Damascus and in close cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). We have built up our activities in Syria; we have engaged with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent; we have done a lot of capacity building and mutually reinforcing cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is active in 14 districts of the country, and has more than 80 sub-branches in the country, which is the only organization today covering the whole of the country, even if it is difficult to reach each and every sub-branch of SARC as the conflict is spreading.
ICRC is also convinced that, with regard to the legal frameworks of the Geneva Conventions and of UN resolutions, humanitarian organizations have to come in support of governments, and not substitute the activities of governments, who are the first responders in a specific crisis. With this approach, we are able to do certain things. We are definitely able to reach a substantive number of people. Last year only, we reached more than 1.5 million in terms of food and household items, probably more than 12 million in terms of water and sanitation facilities, which we put back to order. So, we have an important coverage of humanitarian needs.
We have clearly said that our preference is for crossline and not crossborder, meaning that we negotiate our way, as we do in other theaters of conflict, with all parties on the ground, with all armed actors on the ground, and we try to negotiate our way to populations in need. This is the approach we have taken; once again, with the fighting spreading and increasing number of people affected by the fighting… at the present moment, our frustration is we do not know precisely what the dimension of the problem is, we don’t have Syria’s needs assessment, but we have to suspect that the problem is bigger than what we are able to do at the present moment. But, we will certainly continue to try to build up our operation in cooperation with the SARC, to be in as many parts of the country where needs emerge, and are not limited, either to so-called “opposition-controlled areas” or “government-controlled areas.” There are people in need in both areas, and we try to cope with what we encounter as good as we can.
JL: You mentioned your close cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is considered, based on critics of current humanitarian action in Syria, as part of the problem. Some considered the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as being partial, being auxiliary of the Syrian government. And, some would even say one of the reasons why humanitarian action doesn’t reach rebel-controlled areas is because of this partiality of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. What do you say to those critics?
PM: Well, what I can say is that in our experience over two years, we have found a reasonably good response from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to respecting the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. And I think that overall, the organization is full of collaborators and volunteers who have a strong engagement on principled humanitarian action.
As with many other national societies, they are auxiliaries in one respect, and at the same time also independent actors in the country. With an organization, as I mentioned, with 14 branches and 80 sub-branches, this is no secret that one or the other may have different sensitivities, but overall, there is no alternative to SARC: if you want still to reach as many people as ever possible in Syria, it has been designated as the sort of official interlocutor of any foreign aid.
As I mentioned, we do reach a number of people in Syria, great numbers of people, in cooperation with the SARC. We are confident that cooperation with ICRC and in cooperation with ICRC, SARC could considerably improve its operational coverage and its performance in the country; it has been a national society which hasn’t had any experience in concrete humanitarian work over the decades. And we are now confronted with 9 to 10 thousand volunteers and quite a performing national society, which allows us to do what we do at the present moment. Having said that, I’m the first one to recognize that there are gaps, as I mentioned beforehand, and we should do everything possible to fill those gaps.
JL: Indeed, Syria is widely qualified as a huge protection crisis, where the civilian population suffers the brunt of the conflict, and where international humanitarian law, or also known as the law of armed conflict, is widely disregarded. From the point of the ICRC, which is considered the guardian of humanitarian law, is this body of law still adapted to today’s conflicts? And what are the shortcomings?
PM: Well, there are definitely many provisions in international humanitarian law which are very topical, and adapted, and accurate. If we have Syria, Mali, or Iraq, and Afghanistan in front of our eyes… I mean, there are civilians suffering from the impact of armed violence. The need to respect the basic provisions on conduct of hostilities is as topical and accurate today as it was 150 or 100 years ago.
We definitely have prisoners of all kinds, both sides of frontlines, and I think provisions to respect the basic humanity and treatment of prisoners is as topical today as it was in anytime in history. The protection of hospitals and medical facilities, the special protection under the Geneva Conventions, is most topical in a case like Syria, where we see violations of the integrity of the medical profession and medical installations all over. So, there are a series of provisions which are very much in sync with the reality, and where I would easily say, we just have to ensure application, and not necessarily have to redefine international humanitarian law.
There are other areas today, and other situations of conflict, where I think we need to think carefully whether interpretation, further development of international humanitarian law is important and necessary. Let’s talk about robotic warfare and definitions of battlefields which obviously, we see with technological developments going into different proportions. Battlefields were clearly subscribed when the authors of the Geneva Conventions defined the Geneva Conventions. When we see the so-called “war on terror,” or when we see, increasingly through technological developments, the distance between the man operating the weapon and the target being torn apart, we see quite important challenges in terms of the definition of the battlefield, in terms of new technologies of weapons, in terms of new types of arms bearers, from narcotraffickers to other types of criminals who engage in battlefield-type activity while not really being in a typical armed conflict as we knew it in the past.
So, I would say there are legions now of issues and questions which at least need a serious debate among experts, professionals, but also state parties to the Geneva Conventions, in order to define where to carry the development of international humanitarian law further. And you may be aware that at the last Red Cross and Red Crescent conference, ICRC was tasked to explore, at least officially, two important issues which have been brought forward by ICRC to the debate: the treatment of detainees in non-international armed conflict, as well as mechanisms for application of international humanitarian law.
And I think, as I mentioned before, others may add to this from the ones I mentioned to cyber war, which is still an issue where many experts still struggle with how to make the adequacy of the phenomenon to the body of law in the Geneva Conventions. But, this is work to which ICRC is determined to contribute over the years and month to come.
JL: Going back to the 150th anniversary of the ICRC. What are in your views, besides the challenges to international humanitarian law that you just mentioned, the main challenges to humanitarian action today and the foreseeable future?
PM: There are, of course, lots of challenges. If I try to remind myself over the past 7-8 months I’m in office now: what are the issues which are most often brought to my desk, then I would definitely say its access and security for humanitarians, which is the issue which troubles me most and which is as topical as it is future oriented. How can we ensure access with reasonable risk taking for our operators? Where is the threshold to decide to do an operation, or to decide that it is too risky? It’s a difficult issue, because at the end of the day, it’s the security of your own staff against the needs of populations which you are continuously trying to trade off, and to find credible answers each and every day.
We see that some of the actors in humanitarian action have gone to increasing use of cash as an instrument of humanitarian action; it needs to be debated whether, and in what cases, and under which ramifications, such innovative humanitarian action can take place. I think challenges come from the partnerships which we need to engage, because we are the first ones to recognize that the humanitarian landscape has changed; we are not the only ones, there are hundreds of humanitarian actors, and at least with those with whom we share some common principles and approaches, we need to define partnerships; this is, of course, first and foremost, the national societies, but also some of the global NGOs, or some of the local NGOs that we encounter. And I think defining those partnerships, trying to stick to our tradition and principles on the one side, but at the same time, being open to more innovative forms and formats of humanitarian action is quite important.
I mentioned beforehand the issue of the legal challenges; I think I have basically covered this issue. Speaking here in New York, I would say one of the big challenges remains our humanitarian diplomacy, and, to put it in a short formula, to put humanitarian issues higher on the agenda of international organizations and states. I think as a president of ICRC and as an organization, ICRC has a keen interest to be an advocate for the victims of armed conflict, and to ensure that concerns for humanitarian law, for the needs of humanitarian actions, are taken more prominently into consideration by key actors in the international arena: the UN, the European Union, the African Union, the respective organs, and the respective stakeholders to states which form those international bodies.
That’s the reason also I’m here: to interact with as many colleagues from the UN, and with as many states here at the UN, in order to impress on them that mutual humanitarian action needs not the mingling of politics, but needs political support for its independence stance. And I hope with regard to Syria, with regard to Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places where we are engaged, that I can make a case here in New York with the UN system that humanitarian concerns are taken more prominently into account.
JL: Well, I also really hope that you can make this case, and on these words, thank you very much for being with us today. And good luck with the different meetings you have during these few days in New York. Thank you very much.
PM: Thanks very much to you. It was a great pleasure to be back at IPI and to meet you. Thank you very much.