GENEVA: As the International Committee of the Red Cross prepares to turn 150, it is as relevant as ever and rapidly adapting to the conflicts of the 21st century, its president told AFP in an interview.
“150 years of history show that ICRC is needed today more than ever,” Peter Maurer told AFP at his office at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva ahead of anniversary celebrations on February 17.
Flanked by four framed Nobel Peace Prize diplomas — three won by the organization itself in 1917, 1944 and 1963 and one by one of its founders Henry Dunant, who was honored the first time the prize was awarded in 1901 — he described how the ICRC had grown over the years from a small group of philanthropic volunteers to an operation counting 12,000 employees with a $1.2-billion budget.
“My conclusion is that if the ICRC is getting bigger and bigger ... this is because there are incontestable needs to address,” Maurer said. “Conflicts have not become less damaging for civilian populations or for soldiers.”
Maurer is a career diplomat who took over the reins last July. Like all ICRC presidents, he is Swiss.
The organization’s cardinal role, he said, was in developing the concept of international humanitarian law as detailed in the Geneva Conventions.
The organization has through the years not only “tried its best to protect populations and care for soldiers in the battle fields, but has also been responsible for developing laws, and inspiring diplomats and states’ policies to create the legal framework necessary to ensure a minimum of respect for humanity in wars, armed conflicts and battles,” he said.
After decades of watching nation states clash, the ICRC increasingly finds itself confronted with a new breed of armed conflicts involving independent armed groups, Maurer said.
In facing this challenge, the organization is relying on the values that helped build its reputation more than a century ago.
“The philosophy and the methods the ICRC developed for dealing with nation states are also valid for the non-state groups that we are seeing today.
“There are no alternatives to discussion and constant engagement when it comes to convincing them to respect laws, the rules of conduct (during armed conflict), to distinguish between military personnel and civilians, and rules of conduct for how to treat prisoners,” he said.
Never resorting to military means is an important secret to the ICRC’s success, Maurer said. “We are a humanitarian organization. we do not protect ourselves with weapons,” he argued.
“Our strength, is our conviction,” he said.
“It is being on the ground, near the conflicts, knowing the different actors, being aware of the population’s suffering and responding to the population’s needs.
“And it is about engaging with the arms-bearers to get them to respect a minimum” of humanitarian law, he added.
“That is the essence of what we are doing in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Somalia, and in (the Democratic Republic of) Congo.”
The Swiss diplomat described how his organization today was working to bring relief to populations hit by around a dozen large-scale conflicts.
While the conflicts most in the media spotlight, such as the civil wars in Syria and Mali, are dreadful and serious, he stressed that worse conflicts in terms of human suffering are going on under the radar.
“If I would make a calculation of people in dire need of aid, I would certainly put first on the front page the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Somalia, in Yemen, in Afghanistan and in the Sahel,” Maurer said.
Unlike the United Nations agencies, the ICRC’s donors give it full freedom to distribute the aid it provides where it believes it is most needed, regardless of where the television cameras are, he said.
ICRC donors “don’t force us to use the contributions in specific situations, but allow us to evaluate the needs and channel the humanitarian aid accordingly,” Maurer said.
The organization had “an important role to constantly remind the international community (of) where the objective needs are,” he added.
Despite its “distinct mandate and way of doing things,” the ICRC acknowledges that in the face of growing needs, it will need to cooperate more going forward with the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, as well as with the UN agencies and other large non-governmental organizations.
“Balancing distinction and cooperation is a big challenge,” Maurer said.