New ICRC chief Mirjana Spoljaric: ‘We’re not an advocacy group’

Mirjana Spoljaric during her first public address as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the Graduate Institute Geneva, 28 November 28, 2022. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Mirjana Spoljaric gave her first public speech as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Monday in front of a room crowded with students and professors at the Graduate Institute’s Maison de la Paix. 

In a sober tone, the first-ever female ICRC chief began by quoting a passage from the so-called father of the Red Cross, the late Henry Dunant’s Memory of Solferino – a testament to the fact that suffering caused by fighting 163 years ago is no different from that which exists today.

From Ukraine, to Afghanistan, to Somalia and Yemen, the ICRC is present in each one of the world’s conflicts and it will be Spoljaric’s job to lead the humanitarian body of 22,000 workers as it assists those afflicted. Spoljaric spoke of her recent visit to Northern Mali, where people’s suffering from violence, compounded by the climate crisis, struck her deeply.

And the task shows no signs of letting up as experts and the ICRC itself alert of conflicts becoming longer and more numerous as a result of colliding factors, including economic fragility and climate change.

Scientific advances, according to Spoljaric, also come with new threats: “Technology is rapidly developing, with cyberoperations, autonomous weapons, and the use of outer space raising questions regarding the application and interpretation of international humanitarian law.”

The former Swiss diplomat has an extensive background in international affairs and years of working for the United Nations that she can rely on. On one hand, her experience as head of the UN and international organisations division at Bern should offer insight and connections in the world of politics that drives donor-reliant humanitarian aid.

On the other, her time as senior adviser at the Jordan-based UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) during the Arab Springs, and more recently as director of the UN Development Programme’s regional bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth Independent States, have taken her to sensitive, conflict-hit places, including Ukraine.

But Spoljaric recognises that this job will be nothing like what she’s used to. “There is a change from moving over from a political organisation that is governed by member states, to an organisation that is governed by an assembly,” she said.

“It deprives me of the possibility to hide behind states when something doesn't function, but it gives me the opportunity to focus on what we need to do and it gives me a lot more freedom to defend what we need to defend, with all the pains that come with it and all the pressures that you have to endure sometimes.”

After nearly two months since taking over from the ICRC former boss Peter Maurer, she admitted she still has a lot to catch up on.

“During the first weeks since 1 October when I started, I've been heavily engaged in understanding how the ICRC works, and understanding its major operations,” she told the audience.

The complexities should not take too long to sink in since her past job also entailed shaping the architecture of an organisation – specifically, by representing Switzerland in negotiations for UN reform and budgetary issues at the UN Security Council and managing reform at UNRWA. Spoljaric goes as far as considering herself a “change management professional”.

But whether she will come with new proposals and shake things up at the ICRC, like some critics might like to see, remains to be seen. Spoljaric is the first female to run the humanitarian organisation but is hardly a step away from her predecessor. Both have an academic background in international law and are career diplomats who represented Switzerland in New York to be later appointed to high-level positions in the UN.

As she stepped into Maurer’s shoes for her first public appearance, she gave no sign of changing course. She hammered down the former ICRC president’s plea with states to, in the face of unprecedented conflicts and hardships, go back to the basics and reaffirm the “unique consensus” forged years ago around humanitarian international law rather than question it.

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“We must preserve the hard-won gains we have made. Too often, the positions and practices of governments, whether in statements, policies or positions in multilateral negotiations, weaken interpretations of the law,” she said.

Spoljaric warned against the attractiveness of creating new frameworks, which, for her, are an “easier political gain” than enforcing respect for what already exists.

Her appointment comes  at a time when the ICRC is facing unprecedented pressure from governments and the public, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine fuels debates around the principles of neutrality and confidentiality.

The humanitarian organisation has become the target of fiery criticism from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which accuses it of not doing enough to access Ukrainian prisoners of war being held in Russian-controlled prisons, such as Olenika. The accusations go as far as equating its neutrality with complicity.

Ukraine’s ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets recently told Le Temps in an interview: “Having a conventional mandate and not using it, observing torture from a distance, is not consistent with the mission and values of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Neutral observers of crimes become their accomplices.”

The ICRC has been repeating calls for the past months to be granted  access to all prisoners in Ukraine and Russia to no avail. “We are continuing to negotiate the question of gaining access [to prisons] but it's also a question of being given the necessary security guarantees for the staff to go on visits,” said Spoljaric, calling it the most “politicised issue at the moment”.

As per their rules, the ICRC does not disclose information about their discussions with warring parties and what they witness when given access.

On one hand, it is what has helped build the ICRC’s trust label in the eyes of states but also what could be leading to distrust from the public – an issue that Maurer already had to deal with when he became ICRC president back in 2012.

But for Spoljaric, there is no reason to abandon tradition and move away from the ICRC’s principles of impartiality, neutrality and confidentiality, like some donors suggested in the beginning of the conflict.

“I came to the conclusion that everything we do has an impact on every other place we work (...) Giving up on the principle of confidentiality means that everybody would have noticed what you're giving up, which means losing trust, losing space, losing the possibility of access,” she said.

“This is what it takes. We’re not an advocacy group. We are not an NGO, in the traditional sense, and we’re not a governmental institution.”