An in-depth conversation with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Scientists are constantly warning of the unprecedented risks triggered by the climate emergency. Time is running out: there are less than 20 years to reach the carbon stock in the atmosphere that will bring the world to 2°C of warming. The period of climate instability we enter will have a significant impact on the most vulnerable and some regions of the globe may eventually become unliveable. Geneva Solutions asked Peter Maurer, president since 2012 of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) about his views on the subject and we publish here his answers in a very comprehensive format.
I can almost no longer travel to countries where we have priority operations without people and governments calling us on extreme events related to environmental change.
Geneva Solutions: What does the climate emergency mean for the future of the ICRC's assistance and work in conflicts?
Peter Maurer: I would like to start with one observation: the countries that are particularly affected by conflicts and which are priorities for the ICRC's humanitarian action are also the countries most affected by climate change today. The parallelism between the two is of great concern to us. How can humanitarian action on the one hand do what it has always done and still needs to do, i.e. stabilise societies affected by conflict, violence and natural disasters, and at the same time find a better way to respond to the challenges of climate change?
I would like to mention my most recent experience in the Sahel. A fortnight ago, I went to Burkina and Niger. I went there because there are armed conflicts and the Sahel is an important region for the operations of the ICRC. When I disembarked, I noticed that all the people I met wanted to talk to me about what the ICRC could do to support them in relation to the floods. Everyone agrees that we haven't seen such floods in 50 years, and that the massive destruction and displacement of people is just as enormous as that caused by armed violence. The fact that the two go together has an immediacy that I encounter more and more. I can almost no longer travel to countries where we have priority operations without people and governments calling us on extreme events related to environmental change.
Another dimension in the Sahel impressed me a lot: the desertification of populated regions, exploited by both farmers and herders, which has aggravated conflicts. It is impossible to explain what is happening in the dynamics of violence in the Sahel without reference to the areas that are becoming increasingly difficult to cultivate, are shrinking, and require different conflict resolution mechanisms. What in the past was managed in a precarious but stable Sahelian context has now given way to instability. Mechanisms for managing conflicts between pastoralists and farmers no longer work because the problems have become too great. If, in the past, we used to have a major natural event every seven or ten years, now we have them every year or even every season.
Do we need to change the way assistance is provided?
In many regions we are introducing new types of support, for example more drought-resistant crops or methods to change agricultural production mechanisms. If in the past, humanitarianism was represented by the image of ICRC trucks entering areas with no access to goods, today the concept is to strengthen the resilience of communities and to develop their capacity to manage these changes. This can range from water and waste management to new mechanisms for community conflict management in line with our mandate on prevention and respect of rules for the use of force.
Inevitably, this transforms our whole logic and approach to operations. It is a difficult path to recognise that violence today is not only the violence of two armies facing each other on a battlefield. Violence can also be community-driven. And when it is based on non-state armed groups, we have to find new ways of engaging in dialogue with these weapon bearers. This is what fundamentally transforms our activities.
I have been accused over the last two or three years, when I started talking about climate change and humanitarian issues, of passing on a fad, a political fad: is the ICRC now joining Greta? That is not the question: we have to listen to the communities with whom we work. Of course, they want more security, more protection, but they also want us to help them with very specific actions to face the changes in their natural environment.
This observation should also make us reflect on international humanitarian law and the environment. It is not by chance that, thirty years after the Rio Conference, we are revising our guidelines.
Today, the humanitarian community focuses mainly on adaptation, prevention and response to disasters. Will it have the capacity to cope with the foreseeable increase in needs in one or two decades' time?
This challenge has already preoccupied us in recent years in relation to the dynamics of violence. The last ten years have already seen an explosion in the need for assistance due to the number of conflict hotspots. There is also a conflict dynamic moving into the large urban centres with increasingly significant impacts. Urbanisation, needs due directly to climate change and the deterioration of health systems as a result of the Covid all add on to the violence.
We therefore face the challenge of accelerating the provision of resources to meet the needs. And faced with an exponential increase, we see only a linear development in the traditional sources of funding. Confronted with this situation, we can’t avoid resorting to multiple strategies: we must try to mobilise non-humanitarian funds for these increasingly fragile contexts. This is why I welcome the turn that the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and all the regional banks have taken to create fragility funds with lines of credit to finance more complex situations.
I am also interested in ensuring that the funds available to combat climate change are directed towards fragile contexts. My interest is to show that humanitarian actors are also actors responding to these needs. We need to think much more about innovative funding instruments. Green bonds have been developed in the context of the environmental and climate crisis, as have carbon offsets.
There are two models. The first is the "fundraising to spend" model that we have been doing for a long time: we go to donor countries and transform their money into services for people to fight environmental degradation. The second fundraising formula is still too recent and underdeveloped: it is the provision of capital to have a measurable impact on the environment and the resilience of communities. I have been very clear towards staff in the ICRC's internal communication: if you want to be a relevant actor in the future, you have to broaden the funding base. And perhaps with all these measures, we will be able to create a dynamic that will enable us to respond, because the traditional formula will not be enough. I don't see any possibility of simply relying on transfer mechanisms to cover all the needs. How much can debt relief measures or global asset tax measures contribute to meeting these extremely difficult situations? This is an eminently political question on which I cannot comment. But as a humanitarian actor I think we have to accept the fact that we will be working on different funding methods in the future.
The ICRC must transform itself into an organisation that is also able to sell impact.
In short, humanitarians should mobilise sustainable finance?
That's right. The term I like very much is "joint" or “in common'“ financing. It underlines that all this financing by States and societies of the various humanitarian, development, human rights, peace and environmental objectives must be done more and more in common to reach an impact. Organizations like mine and others need to learn that when resources cannot easily be mobilized according to the paradigms of the past, we need to see how we can solve this problem by mobilizing other resources. I think we need to transform ourselves into an organisation that is also able to sell impact.
In a context where every society will be affected by climate impacts and have to radically transform its social and economic system, will international solidarity remain a political priority? Is there a risk that richer states and donors refocus on their own societies?
I am not sure about the prospects for solidarity in our societies, I find the signals contradictory. On the one hand, the last few months have shown us how many funds can suddenly be mobilised within certain countries. We have also seen a loss of international commitment, a fallback into the national sphere and and I think this is a real danger.
And on the other hand, I perceive an interest, a greater sense of solidarity in many societies. The last word has not been said on how solidarity will be transformed into action in the future. The direction taken with the leadership of a country can have a decisive impact on how solidarity will be expressed in 5 or 10 years' time for the financing of global public goods.
I also feel that we, as a humanitarian organisation, will have to not only call for solidarity - it is an important value very much linked to the fundamental concept of humanity - but try to present these actions as being in the interest of those who are displaying solidarity. I find it problematic that, in humanitarian circles, interest is often pitted against solidarity. We need to show why it is in the interest to be in solidarity, and why instruments traditionally linked to policies of interest can also have a positive impact on the objectives we want to achieve. We all know that we can continue to call for traditional solidarity, but I think it is even more important to show why instruments of interest can be useful in achieving objectives. Solidarity can also be promoted politically, with enabling legislative frameworks: for example, the US tax system that allows tax deductions for contributions to public goods and voluntary actions stimulates donations. All possible instruments should be used in the future to create the conditions by which people can show solidarity. We ought not to be too ideological when tapping into new financial instruments that have traditionally been there for the financial markets, and rather focus on how to achieve an impact in relation to humanitarian, development or environmental goals.
It must be acknowledged that strategies to immunise the law have never succeeded. If there is a problem, it must be named.
A lot of countries are turning to hard policies that reject refugees and migrants, many of whom are fleeing war and instability. Are the traditional instruments of international law still adapted to the challenge of climate change and its impact on population movements?
I think they remain relevant, in essence. These instruments were created at a certain time, but contain much older norms. Are these conventions of 1949 or 1951 relevant in today's context? Insofar as they already reflected at that time, sixty years ago, much deeper realities of normative value in society - cohesion, society, solidarity, and humanity - the answer is yes. For centuries and millennia foreigners have been welcomed, and women and children were spared in wars. Humanity has found ways out of torture and ill-treatment. These standards will remain fundamental in the future.
That said, there are also new problems. And in this context, I am in favour of a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, to interpret existing law in a contemporary way, so that it can solve current problems. Secondly, we have to recognise that there are things that are not adequately reflected in the normative system. And if so, we need to launch political processes that will enable us to fill the legal gaps. I have always been opposed to those who want to "immunise" or sanctify the law at some point in history. And not to discuss it because that right is being challenged, for fear of losing it. Personally, I would be in favour of a broader, more substantial, more ambitious right of protection. And I would certainly not want to sacrifice the legal achievements of the past by opening up to government negotiation. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that strategies to immunise the law have never succeeded. If there is a problem, it must be named. If the law finds a reasonable, normative or interpretative solution, it must be done, it must be pursued.
Some States, including democratic ones, are increasingly resorting to develop retention rather than protection policies. In Lesbos as elsewhere, we see practices sometimes reminiscent of concentration camps - that is, concentrating populations in tightly controlled places. Will this trend continue to grow?
It is certainly a danger. It is clearly not a desirable development. There is also the failure of a legal argument and a recognition that the ground for these situations, in some respects, has changed. So we must try to make the normative system evolve, and find political solutions to political problems. As representatives of a humanitarian organisation, we seek to find solutions that respect principles.
That is clearly the way forward.
Many governments, cities and multinational companies are declaring an emergency situation and have adopted a "Net Zero" trajectory to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Although the aid sector finds itself at the forefront of vulnerabilities, it has paradoxically not yet done so. Should the ICRC aim for decarbonisation?
Yes, that is clearly the way forward. In all modesty, we have started to walk it. We have an energy strategy, we are in the process of implementing it. We are trying to replace fuel-based systems with solar-based systems, where possible. We are also investing in research projects that will allow us to have more autonomy, with "mini-grids" and new technologies. We promote the use of materials that are compatible or more compatible with environmental standards. Today, there are almost no hospitals or medical centres that we support without an integrated waste programme. A whole series of efforts are being made. As I said once symbolically: today's priority is "greening the red".
One of the dilemmas is however between the strategy, its implementation, and the short term. The humanitarian community has perhaps, for longer than other institutions, worked with the cheapest product for the greatest number of victims. This is a legitimate approach for emergency action. But the cheapest, unfortunately, is not necessarily the most respectful of environmental standards. We are at the very heart of a societal debate. I know of no company, no institution, no country that is not confronted with this situation.
Although this dilemma must be taken into account, we are seriously implementing our strategy. We are learning a lot. It makes us, for example, temporarily invest a lot more money in staff training. Because everyone knows how to put fuel in a pump, but using solar panels requires an additional training programme. It takes time until everyone is trained and recruited. As President, I have really had a "crash course" over the last three years on the complexity of the transformation.
We can't say: we save people but we let the environment rot, it's not right. From the moment societies are also asking us to do this, we must do it. And when science tells us what it tells us, we have to react.
Do aid organizations have a role in accelerating climate action to stabilize rising temperatures? The Red Cross movement is an exceptional human and social network, with a presence all over the world. Can it play a role in amplifying this shift ?
Yes, insofar as we respond to the humanitarian needs of communities who want our involvement in projects, programmes and activities related to the environment. We want to move in this direction. We also have a responsibility to interpret the "Do No Harm" principle in relation to the environment in which we operate. We can't say: we save people but we let the environment rot, it's not right. From the moment societies are also asking us to do this, we must do it. And when science tells us what it tells us, we have to react.
At the same time, and this is a word of caution, we must keep the profile of the Red Cross movement as a humanitarian organization and not as an advocacy organization against climate change. It's a fine line. On the one hand, we want to be responsible, we want to respond to challenges, we want to conceptualize a new kind of humanitarian action able to respond in a better way to climate and environmental challenges. All this is right. But we must also remember that our capacity for action derives from not being perceived as a political player taking a stand on controversial issues. While as the ICRC or Red Cross movement, we will certainly have to evolve and do the best we can in our programmes to protect and respect the natural environment, we will be careful not to be associated with the political fight against climate change. This tension needs to be managed.
Exemplarity and evidence are crucial.
Isn't exemplary practice an answer to this dilemma?
Yes, it is. The ICRC is known to be a principled organisation, but we are also a pragmatic organisation, because we try to show what works and what actually helps people in difficult situations. Exemplarity and evidence are crucial in all these debates. This is why we have included evidence-base in our institutional strategy: we must have the possibility to test what emerges as responses to the challenges we face. The climate and environmental challenge is part of this. We need to show that we can contribute and set an example to improve humanitarian action.