International

Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC: Humanitarian diplomacy today

As Mirabaud celebrates 30 years of operations in Canada, our Montreal office had the privilege of sitting down with Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on 26 September.

Peter Maurer gave MirMag the low-down on the current challenges in humanitarian diplomacy and explained how the organization has been innovating to improve its work in the field.

What does "humanitarian diplomacy" mean today?

As a historian, I like going back to our origins. The ICRC's founding fathers sought not just to help victims of wars and natural disasters, but also to create an organization that would influence developments in international law. From the outset, we at the ICRC have therefore been committed to raising governments’ awareness of the law and to carrying out relief work in the field. In order to help victims of armed conflict, we need to have access to them. We gain that access by being in contact with all the parties involved (State and non-State alike), negotiating with them, helping them understand the importance of humanitarian work and earning their support. We are also committed to strengthening our dialogue with governments, who provide 92% of our funding. By comparison, the private sector is our seventh-largest donor. All of these activities are part of humanitarian diplomacy.

What gives the ICRC legitimacy as a diplomat?

The UN has the authority to implement procedures and NGOs have authority within their areas of expertise. The ICRC has had a diplomatic role since its inception, which was closely linked to the drafting of the Geneva Conventions. When I joined the ICRC, I was keen to emphasise the diplomatic aspect, which, while little known, is an essential part of what we do. That is why we work tirelessly to bring people together and engage them, and why we attend meetings and multilateral forums: to promote discussion between all stakeholders.

Is the ICRC’s emblem a help or a hindrance in this arena?

The strength of our emblem is that it is well known and well established. But it is our work, our neutrality, impartiality and commitment to humanity that command respect. The emblem is respected in many regions of the world, but can sometimes be a hindrance or, in certain circumstances, actually make us a target. This usually only occurs when there is a breakdown of trust, so we need to explain what we do clearly. That said, we are not alone. Today, the reality of armed conflict has changed: more and more people are being targeted, above all civilians.

You say that things have changed, but what has really changed since Solferino?

What we’re seeing now is the utter fragmentation of conflict. Nations are no longer the only parties involved, and the proliferation of other groups is making situations harder to manage. Weaponry has also evolved considerably: modern weapons are far more devastating. War itself has been transformed, becoming industrialised, globalised, more technological and also concentrated in cities. The fighting no longer takes place in vast uninhabited plains, but in urban areas. Nowadays we speak of the battles of Aleppo, Fallujah and Mosul. The consequences of this shift can be measured by how conflicts affect the local population. During the First World War, the death toll mainly referred to soldiers. The opposite was true in the Second World War and that has continued to the present day. It is civilians who pay the highest price. Ironically, armed groups are now less affected than civilians, who also bear the indirect consequences of war. When a hospital is bombed, for instance, the casualties are not limited to the number of people killed in the attack. If the hospital has been destroyed, no one can get medical care, possibly within a wide radius. Depending on the region, that could mean that up to 100,000 people who are ill or in need of emergency care go without treatment. We therefore face far more difficulties today in our humanitarian work, some of which have never been encountered before.

Have the changes also affected how the ICRC works?

As the environment in which we work has grown increasingly complex, we have indeed changed our approach. Nowadays, good intentions alone are not enough. We have to continue to professionalise and build on our experience to train future delegates, who will need to be qualified in a number of fields, from diplomacy to logistics, engineering and health care. To train this new generation, we have been working with other humanitarian organizations to develop courses on negotiation and on project management and leadership. Times have changed and we need to adapt and develop new skillsets to reflect the situation on the ground. The structure of the ICRC has also evolved: the larger we become, the more challenges we face. We need to innovate and manage our activities like a company. This is unavoidable if we want to remain effective.

What does innovating to improve effectiveness mean for the ICRC?

Fortunately, new technologies are not just used to wage war. At the ICRC, we use technology to respond more effectively to victim’s needs and improve the humanitarian assistance we provide them. For example, we have incorporated new communication methods into our work that allow us to contact victims more easily so as to better understand their needs. We also regularly join forces with researchers and the private sector. Former ICRC delegates are currently working with the EPFL – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne – to design new prostheses that are better suited to rough terrain and to develop an energy-efficient power supply for mobile operating theatres. Together with UN agencies and NGOs, we set up the Global Humanitarian Lab, which seeks innovative, more effective solutions to today’s humanitarian challenges.

Are you innovating on the funding side as well?

All public and private donations we receive are voluntary, so we need to find ways to diversify our funding sources. This year, we launched a new financial instrument – the Humanitarian Impact Bond – in conjunction with the Belgian Department of Development Cooperation. The bond is intended for private investors. By participating, investors will help thousands of disabled people worldwide to get physical rehabilitation services and take an active part in their communities again. With this project, we are trying to establish a direct link between investors and beneficiaries and start a virtuous circle. We are raising money to increase our social impact, which will in turn have a positive economic impact. 

Of all the new challenges for humanitarian activities, is there any one that particularly worries you?

Our biggest challenge today is population displacement. Many millions of people have been forced from their homes – far more than during the Second World War. This phenomenon creates major humanitarian and sanitation problems: people fleeing the fighting don't just need health care, water and food – they need a place to live too, and all the infrastructure that goes along with it. Displacement has become a systemic problem. Some diseases, such as polio, are currently making a comeback, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing a major upheaval.

Can humanitarian work really be effective in such a complex environment?

I believe in what we do. Each and every day, we save lives, we supply medication, and we negotiate with the different groups involved in order to provide the people affected with the assistance they need. However, we have to look at our successes and our failures with a critical eye. We are making progress, slowly at times and swiftly at others, but always improving.

Nevertheless, diplomacy and humanitarian activities seem to have reached a deadlock in Syria.

Despite what you might think, we are active on the ground, involved in negotiations and easing victims’ suffering. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are operating amid total war, which is extremely difficult to stabilise. There are over a hundred different groups, including major world powers, that have an influence on events. Many of them will not talk to each other, which is a huge challenge. We have been denied access to many areas and the interests of the different groups are constantly shifting and often conflicting, which makes it even more complicated for us to carry out our operations.

The chaos in Syria seems to have relegated international humanitarian law to the back seat. Are the principles established by this branch of law still relevant in the modern world?

Compliance is based on trust. If one party in a conflict believes that the enemy will not abide by the applicable legal principles, it creates a vicious circle. That’s why we have to work to restore trust between the different parties.

International law – such as the Geneva Conventions – did not come out of nowhere. It is based on practices and standards that have been developed over centuries. International law also builds on a cultural foundation, a law of customs that are common to all societies. Dialogue is at the heart of international humanitarian law. Where there is a divergence in interpretation or application, all parties have a duty to find common ground despite their differences and reach a compromise. However, modifications are needed, primarily to plug the gaps in the law. I'm thinking in particular of the emergence of new combat technologies, such as drones. The digitisation of war has to be governed by standards, and the ICRC has an important role to play in this respect – raising awareness of the need for new rules to ensure they are established.

You have close ties with governments, but what about with the private sector?

Many people were surprised when I joined the WEF Board of Trustees. And yet, in a world where economics and politics intermingle, I feel it is important to speak to the leaders in the private sector. They have a lot to say and a lot of impact on the course of events. In my opinion, it is essential to maintain a dialogue with them. Dialogue creates opportunities. We need to incorporate the expertise that businesses have on innovation into our approach. Given the growing numbers of people and organizations involved, we need to work together and innovate more to come up with solutions, develop them and use them in the field.