“We have blatant disrespect of humanitarian spaces in many conflicts today”

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | December 16, 2015


Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross

The 32nd international conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, on the theme of ‘Power of Humanity’, was held in Geneva during December 8-10. The conference, held every four years, is a global forum that brings together states parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, including the 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their international federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The conference deliberated on a host of resolutions, some of which, particularly, the one pertaining to compliance to international humanitarian law and detention, were debated till late. Shreerupa Mitra-Jha spoke to Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, on the sidelines of the conference. Edited excerpts from the interview:


What do you expect from this  conference?
A conference can establish policy consensus among the participants and in terms of policy consensus expected, I hope, that with regard to some of the critical issues on the agenda – health care in danger, attacks on health facilities, sexual and gender-based violence, on security of humanitarian personnel, on the creation of a compliance mechanism, eventually, and on continuation of a process among states with regard to detention in non-international armed conflicts – these are the big issues. But, again, the critical results of a conference are resolutions, and resolutions reflect policy consensus on those issues. So, my expectation is that the conference will offer some policy consensus. 

This is a very unique conference because it reunites the Red Cross movement and the states. There is only one other international fora which has certain similarities with it – the International Labour Conference with trade unions, employers and states. This is the second international important body and, therefore, I would expect that the articulation of policy issues is different than if you have just a meeting of states or if you have just a meeting of the Red Cross movement. So, the interest is that it is multi-stakeholder and states, national societies, the Federation and ICRC are all together in a room for two and a half or three days.

The WHO reports that in 2014 alone more than 600 humanitarian workers, including health workers and medical doctors, were killed in their line of duty. Recently, frontline ICRC workers were killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Mali and Syria. Do you think humanitarian workers are increasingly coming under threat not only from terrorist groups like the ISIS or ISIL but also from government-sponsored indiscriminate shelling?
Definitely, the situation in which humanitarian workers deliver today is very complex and conflicts have evolved and are much more messy and frontlines fuzzier than ever before. Our humanitarian workers also go much closer to, and need to go closer to, assist and protect people. So, today compared to 40-50 years ago we have more humanitarian workers on the ground. We have more complex environments. We have blatant disrespect of some humanitarian spaces in many of the conflicts today. It is an issue on the table of the conference – hospitals which are particularly protected today are regularly attacked as well as medical workers and ambulances. These are all factors which certainly add up to a more difficult situation in which the humanitarian workers find themselves [in].

Organisations like the ICRC and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are supposed to be neutral mediators among all warring parties. How difficult has it become for an organisation like yours to maintain neutrality when there is an overwhelmingly blatant disregard to international humanitarian law, for instance, as we recently witnessed with the bombing by the US of the MSF hospital in Kunduz killing doctors and patients or Saudi Arabia bombing civilian spaces, including hospitals and schools, in Yemen?
One thing is how I see the future, the other thing is what I can do about it and then the third thing is what the ICRC can do about it. Let’s maybe start with the third thing. The ICRC is not an organisation which has a sanctioned potential towards those who disrespect international humanitarian law (IHL). Our methodology as a non-government organisation with governmental mandate is to help states to respect IHL and this is one of the reasons why we think we have to create a dedicated forum which allows us to engage more regularly with states and to raise those issues of disrespect. This is what is the very essence of what this conference will, hopefully, produce by Thursday. So one thing is what you can do to train, sensitise, review, revisit concrete operations. This is also the reason why ICRC – with its treatment with state and non-state armed groups – is always eager to have a space of confidentiality, because we want to be able to go into the details of violations and we are not a sanctions body, again – we try to change behaviour. So, this is the essence of what we can do.

Beyond ourselves, of course, there are other international fora which have to deal with the fact that law is disrespected. And this, most of the time, has to be dealt with in the political fora. But the ICRC does not wish to be a part of the political decision-making process because we strongly believe that our access and our ability to interact with those who violate is also contingent to the fact of whether we have access to them and this is, normally, guaranteed only if we create that space of confidentiality. So we have to keep things separate and also there are political bodies like the Security Council and other international fora [that] have to come to grips with the fact that IHL and the laws of war are repeatedly disrespected by state and non-state armed groups. Let me recall to you, because you mentioned the example, that this year the event in Kunduz was one of the 421 attacks on health facilities that ICRC has counted in some of the 15-20 contexts in which we have made statistics. So this is a much broader phenomenon.

The UN recently launched a humanitarian appeal to raise $20.1 billion for 2016. Most of this will be used for protracted crises like the one in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Iraq. Do you think that with the ISIS threat looming large,  other grave humanitarian concerns have been de-prioritised for donors, such as the case of Palestinians in Syria or the more mundane but severe humanitarian issues in Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and elsewhere?
There are, maybe, two things that I would like to say to this kind of appeal. Indeed, we are continuously struggling as a humanitarian organisation between the objective needs of people, the attention that a conflict has in the international community and the resource flow, and these three elements are never in sync. And in that sense, we have observed for quite some time, that long-term, protracted conflicts, in particular, in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions of the world as well, are de-prioritised by donors and do not get sufficient funds. Un-earmarked contributions to the ICRC are the best way to help us shift money from high attention areas to low attention areas and to function as an equaliser in our own budget.

The second point I would try to make is the following because of the mindboggling figure that you mention [$20.1 billion]. While I do respect the fact that the UN agency makes the overall important calculation of the needs, this does not include the ability to spend and the ability to have access to the needy and, I think, while ICRC’s figures are normally considerably lower, this is also because of the fact that we in our assessment try also to mirror the needs to what we are really able to deliver. And those appeals [that] are neither the $22 billion nor the $1.5 billion appeal, that ICRC has launched a couple of days ago, those appeals do not consider that there are places in the world today to which no international humanitarian has access [to] and these are the particularly forgotten crises which are even worse than the forgotten crises that you mentioned before.

The three biggest donors for humanitarian aid last year contributed $7.7 billion but the same three donors spent $747 billion on military expenditure. So, obviously the money is there – and not just for humanitarian work. May I have a comment on that?
As a humanitarian, on these questions, I tend to take the ‘political question’ escape route [laughs]. I think what countries decide and how they mix their budgets is a profoundly political question. And you can’t really expect me as president of ICRC to give a pronouncement on it. What I can say, and continuously say now, in diplomatic engagement with high contracting parties to the Geneva conventions is draw their attention to priorities which in terms of a humanitarian are unsatisfactory. And it is completely unsatisfactory when we have to struggle for money which is absolutely essential to sustain lives and livelihoods of people when other priorities are pushing higher but this is the very essence of [the] advocacy work of [the] president of ICRC, of an under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the UN. What we basically wish is that humanitarian development, stabilisation work in fragile contexts gets much higher priority in national budgets and in the provision of international organisations with funds.

Last year the UN faced a humanitarian funding gap of $10 billion. Did you also face a funding gap?
We will end the year with little bit of a funding gap but compared to what it looked like in the middle of the year we have been able to close the gap considerably. So we will run on a deficit, yes, but the deficit will be considerably smaller, which means, this year, ICRC spent also roughly a little bit less than [$] 1.5 [billion] and 90 percent of all our contributions have been implemented. Just to explain to you the perspective on what we do: while we have considerably lower budgets, we implement, and we spend the money. This year we will end up with little bit of a deficit but we are able to take the risk of such deficits because we have some reserves which allow us to frontload as well as pay deficits at the end of the year.

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