Peter Maurer: ‘To gain support, the ICRC must earn it’

Peter Maurer, outgoing ICRC president, photographed in Geneva, Octobre 2017. (Credit: Nicolas Righetti/Le Temps)

Peter Maurer will leave the presidency of the ICRC at the end of September. Access to Ukrainian and Russian prisoners, its controversial participation in the World Economic Forum, and a change of organisational culture: an exclusive review of a turbulent decade.

With less than 20 days to go before Mirjana Spoljaric Egger takes over as the first female president of the International Committee of the Red Cross on 1 October, Peter Maurer looks back on the vision that has carried him through and the obstacles he has faced during a decade in which humanitarian intervention has been so badly affected. This interview was originally published in French in Le Temps

Le Temps: You were president of the ICRC for ten years. In what state are you leaving this organisation?

Peter Maurer: In a good state, in the sense that it responds to the needs of populations suffering from conflict and violence. Because we are able to gain the trust of the warring parties, there is hardly a place in the world where we are not present: this is what the institution should be judged on. It faces the challenges by maintaining a balance between the three pillars that have formed the core of its work for 160 years: responding operationally to the needs of people, engaging diplomatically to ensure that powers take IHL into account in their decisions, and participating in international negotiations on the evolution of the law.

How have you seen conflicts change since 2012?

The very nature of war has been transformed. First, the actors are increasingly fragmented. In addition to the 130 states directly or indirectly involved in the conflicts, we count between 500 and 600 non-state armed groups and maintain regular contact with more than half of them. Their expansion complicates our humanitarian commitment from a legal point of view. Second, the weapons are increasingly sophisticated, targeted and destructive; we are engaged in intense diplomatic efforts to contain the effects of waging war with such weapons in densely populated areas such as cities. Finally, the battlefields themselves are changing. Today, we fight on land, at sea or in the air, but also in space and cyberspace. This expansion of the battlefield raises the question of the applicability and philosophy of international law. How can it be interpreted when the actors, weapons and battlefields have changed so much? Finally, the belligerents are increasingly mixing criminal motives with political motivations. This spiral exists wherever the ICRC works, notably in Africa or in Latin and Central America.

Do civilian populations have the same needs as before?

When I started at the ICRC, I thought there was a consensus on what humanitarian action is, i.e. assistance to ensure that people have access to health, water, shelter and immediate support. But other problems are emerging: psychosocial trauma is on the rise. The rise in sexual violence also shows that something is changing.

How should humanitarians adapt their work?

The Syrian war of 2012, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Nigeria – Africa's largest economy! – and then the invasion of Ukraine, a fairly modern and developed European country, have shaken the implicit assumption that conflicts take place in poor countries. Today, we may no longer need an ICRC that sends 30 trucks to an affected population, but an organisation that understands the dynamics and tries to bring expertise where it is really needed, without remaining fixed on what humanitarianism should be.

Digital transformation is another disruption. In 2012, people thought it was just about producing better computers. Today, it is understood to be a revolution in internal processes, in the way we assess needs, interact - in the way we think, even, about humanitarianism. The transformative effect of the last decade has been much more profound than I thought.

Peter Maurer (left) visiting the Al Hol camp for displaced persons in Syria, 2017. (ICRC)

During your time as president, the culture of the ICRC has changed significantly. How and why did you transform the organisation?

I understood the ICRC as a place where two very different processes intersect. Firstly, it is an organisation with many traditions, values and principles. It is a place where international humanitarian law represents much more than norms, but a body of universal rules of human behaviour. We are rightly proud to belong to this tradition, which is even older than 1863. And it is important to value it. But at the same time, the ICRC is faced with immense challenges: a world that is going off the rails, growing needs... In various ways, this new situation calls for a new management. Of course, it is possible to manage a large organisation with an NGO culture, i.e. a very horizontal and participative way of working. For many decades, this is how the ICRC was managed. But if we had stayed that way, donors would have stopped funding us. There was a need to professionalise the management of resources, a point on which we are accountable to those who give us money as well as to the other actors with whom we interact in the field. Tradition is no longer enough. To gain support, the ICRC must earn it and know how to marry the strength of its humanitarian history with the demands of our times. This is how I understand this organisation: as a place of values, but also of professional management and action. Today, the corporate culture has changed: while there are discussions about the mix of these two elements, there is a basic acceptance that tradition and professionalisation are both important.

“To gain support, the ICRC must earn it and know how to marry the strength of its humanitarian history with the demands of our times.”

When did this realisation come to you?

There was no trigger. In 2012, we already knew that the world could go off the rails, that needs were growing and that structures had to be improved. Perhaps I became more aware of this with the war in Syria. It fundamentally changed the way I think about humanitarianism.

Is your appointment to the World Economic Forum's foundation board in 2014 part of this cultural shift?

No, I wouldn’t put it exactly like that. My presence in Davos and then the structural engagement that followed was about connecting the organisation, diplomatically and politically, to outside discussions that would help it better understand the world. I never participated in the events and the board from a particularly operational perspective: we already had partnerships with the private sector that we transformed, evolved and adapted to the circumstances. The WEF represents somewhere the opportunity to connect to political-economic issues that are recognised as humanitarian issues. It is listening to what others are saying, and seeing how the private sector is thinking. And it's a way to contribute by bringing our experience of conflict to a group that normally doesn't think about the Sahel, Syria, Afghanistan, but in terms of the global economy.

Some people have said that your closeness to the WEF undermines the credibility of delegates in the field. Do you understand this criticism?

I understand a lot of arguments, I'm a great listener. But I want to be as empirical and non-ideological as possible. As an organisation that advocates neutrality, independence and impartiality, we ourselves must base our work on facts and evidence. This is essential. And then, as president of the ICRC, it is a role that I understand as one that takes risks and responsibilities, and I was convinced that this rapprochement with the WEF would be a good thing. That doesn't mean that I didn't consider the risks: like any good leader, when you are 51 per cent convinced of what you are doing, you still overdo your communication by pretending to be 100 per cent. Of course, I am very happy that none of the negative predictions I was told when I became a member of the WEF board came true, but I couldn't rule it out. So I weighed the pros and cons, in the same way that I thought about the pros and cons of partnerships, of moving to eastern Ghouta in Syria in the middle of the war... At some point, you have to make a decision.

Was it a bet?

Yes, it was a gamble. We could fail. But if you're not prepared to fail, you don't do anything. I knew that adopting a growth strategy for the ICRC would be very difficult. That there would be friction, that it would be difficult to get resources. But I wanted to send a much broader message: we had to take these risks to move the organisation forward. And every one of the risks I've taken in ten years has had a special meaning. By going to Afghanistan and Syria, I wanted to show what the ICRC is capable of, and what it continues to do when the cameras are no longer there. This follows the same logic as going to the World Economic Forum to convince those who may not have thought about the fate of people in certain parts of the world. I have never pretended that I did not make mistakes, I have never dismissed or closed the discussion. But my role as president required that I be clear about what I wanted to say, and what I wanted to do.

What impact has your approach had?

The displacement of 2015 contributed greatly to my voice being heard. That summer, decision-makers understood the value of taking into account the perspective of a humanitarian actor. As for us, we used this platform to articulate issues that otherwise would not have been expressed. I took advantage of Davos to communicate in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times or Asia Finance, publications that usually do not talk about the Sahel or Afghanistan, the suffering of the populations and the humanitarian agenda.

I heard that you are being considered to replace Klaus Schwab, the current WEF president... is this a rumor?

It is a rumor.

So there is no truth behind this?

Not at all! They say that there is no smoke without fire, but sometimes there is no fire behind the smoke...

Let’s talk about the financial state of the ICRC. How is the organisation doing economically?

Our budgeting is special because we propose budgets that can be financed and achieved without waiting for our donors to consult us. We are doing well because we present relatively conservative envelopes, with growth that we consider manageable and negotiable with the warring parties. Our budget is moderate: we really try to allow the ICRC helicopter to land on the right runway (smiles). The organisation is healthy. The 2.4 billion we are asking for is still a large and ambitious sum, but measured against the needs.

Yet the ICRC’s budget has increased from 1.4 to 2.4 billion in eight years. Doesn’t the need to obtain so much money make the ICRC more dependent, especially on states that have political interests and are also guilty of crimes?

Negotiating support while upholding the ICRC’s independence is a constant challenge, but donors give money because they know they are investing in a neutral, impartial and independent organisation. They must themselves be careful in managing the reputation in which they invest. I’m not saying there are no problems, but it’s not necessarily the largest players in terms of size that are the most difficult: political dynamics play a much more crucial role. It is not for nothing that a large group of ICRC staff manages donors: finding a balance between the pressures they are under or are trying to drag us into and our neutral, impartial and independent character is not an easy exercise. And sometimes we give up, because we cannot reach a satisfactory policy. It is important to maintain a firm line.

Let’s talk about neutrality. First of all, what is the difference between the neutrality of the ICRC and that of Switzerland?

They have little in common. The ICRC’s neutrality is a principle of action that guides its activities in the field, it is linked to behaviour towards belligerents and aims to act without political, racial, cultural, religious or other prejudices, and without taking a position on what divides states and belligerents. And I see no reason why we should diminish our commitment to this principle which allows us to obtain access, guarantee the safety of our personnel and act through humanitarian diplomacy. Neutrality does not mean non-engagement! It is now part of the ICRC’s genetic heritage and allows us to find the right solutions in the field. Switzerland's neutrality is desired by the Swiss people and is the result of a convergence of national wills not to participate in geopolitical convergences. To be credible in foreign policy, this neutrality requires the agreement of the powers on the way it is managed. It is therefore an arrangement between the powers and Switzerland, anchored in the respective international documents, which has nothing to do with that which guides humanitarian action.

Russia considers that Switzerland is no longer a neutral country. What is the impact on the ICRC, given the interdependence between the ICRC and Switzerland?

I don’t see any effect for the moment. My two predecessors were very insistent on clarifying the neutrality of the country and of the organisation and the independence that the ICRC enjoys vis-à-vis Switzerland. Over the last 30 years, many actors have come to understand that we do not work for the Swiss government, that we have our own identity and interpretation of neutrality. It is important that this continues, and I have often spoken about this with Didier Burkhalter and Ignazio Cassis, who agree with me.

“There are questions about our neutrality and impartiality in all the key conflicts in which we are involved. But I must stress that none of the key Russian or Ukrainian interlocutors in charge of prisoners and weapons question our posture.”

How do you assess the ICRC’s access to Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs)?

We have access, and at the same time we lack access. We have been able to visit a few hundred POWs on both sides, while finding – if I take the figures given by the Ukrainian and Russian defence ministers as accurate – a substantial difference with the fact that several thousand people are being held on each side. We are very concerned about this discrepancy and we are really trying to bridge it with both countries so that we can work in the way that international humanitarian law provides. What I find positive is that neither Russia nor Ukraine has questioned our right to visit POWs. This deviation from practice is therefore rather a question of trust in the ICRC as a neutral intermediary. It is not a political objection, unlike in many other places in the world where you are told no because they question the role of the ICRC. Here there is no challenge.

The ICRC distributes hygiene kits to the civilian population in the Donetsk oblast, in Ukraine, June 2022. (Credit: ICRC)

What explains the mistrust that the Russians and Ukrainians might feel?

There are questions about our neutrality and impartiality in all the key conflicts in which we are involved. But I must stress that none of the key Russian or Ukrainian interlocutors in charge of prisoners and weapons question our position. There are questions about our effectiveness or progress, but not about the core issues. As for the discontent expressed by the populations with regard to the non-respect of the Geneva Conventions, I understand it and I share it! But there is daily dialogue and, in spite of everything, progress is being made.

Is public opinion less understanding of the ICRC's work than it was a few years ago?

You always have to try to explain what you want to do. Neutrality and confidentiality are concepts that do not suit many people in a world that is becoming increasingly polarised and where there is more and more communication. But this problem is cyclical. People's understanding of neutrality is strongly linked to their appreciation of a conflict. The humanitarian principles of neutrality and confidentiality are counterintuitive; they are concepts of reason, not emotion, and that is also the difficulty. As a human being, I myself am exposed and must sometimes force myself to adopt a rational approach. I understand this dilemma between emotion and the principles of humanitarian action.

“I have not been able to prevent the miscalculations of certain leaders any more than my predecessors have.”

How do you personally manage this discipline?

I am a diplomat; I try to remain professional. And I try to recharge my batteries as much as I can.

What do you do to take your mind off things?

I play sports, I read, often about unrelated things. I often read in German because I am deeply connected to this culture and language and then... I bought a kayak. I want to spend more time on the lake of Thun in the future.

Apart from Thun, what other waters will you dive into after the ICRC?

I will take over the presidency of the Basel Institute on Governance on 1 October. I have already started working with the Graduate Institute in Geneva, advising them on a master's degree in negotiation and diplomacy. I have one or two mandates for the World Economic Forum, and I have been elected to the board of Zurich Insurance; I will start there on 1 October. I think it's interesting that some companies want to hear other voices.

Maybe it will be less hectic than trying to talk to leaders of countries at war?

I hope so! The idea in stepping down as president of the ICRC is to change the pace. But I'm not the type of person who will take advantage of retirement to cultivate his garden or wash his car.

Especially since you prefer to ride your bike...

I will have two: one in Bern and one in Geneva (smile).

How do you feel about leaving this presidency?

As ambiguous as I have been for the last ten years. I am rather happy with the journey I have made, and what we have achieved. This job exposes you to some very powerful moments. Ten years at the head of the ICRC was not just a job, but a way for me to get to know myself, and to recognise myself. But there is also the frustration of not being able to change certain things. No more than my predecessors, I could not prevent the bad calculations of certain leaders. They always think they can end wars very quickly. But a war lasts twenty-five years. That has never dissuaded them.

This piece originally appeared in French in Le Temps. Please note that articles translated from third party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.