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“We can deliver food and water and provide medical care, but behaviour on the battlefield is paramount in reducing suffering in armed conflicts”

“We can deliver food and water and provide medical care, but behaviour on the battlefield is paramount in reducing suffering in armed conflicts”

Peter Maurer, President of ICRC

Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) made a two-day visit of Ethiopia this week. While in the capital, the former Switzerland diplomat spoke to local government and African Union officials on areas of migration and displacement crises. Here, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the role of aid, on Ethiopia’s role in accommodating refugees from the region, on the unique work of the ICRC and on how the world’s most affluent nations are responding to the humanitarian challenges in the world. Excerpts:

The Reporter: In your assessment, what is the role of humanitarian aid in a region that credits foreign investment as one that has changed its narrative more effectively?

Peter Maurer: Humanitarian aid is not meant to replace foreign investment, and vice-versa. The two are complementary. The ICRC is also not a development organization. Our work is aimed at alleviating suffering and restoring basic dignity for those affected by armed conflict and violence by providing assistance and promoting respect for International Humanitarian Law.

Ethiopia is known to host thousands of refugees from neighboring nations, those from Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan, and now notably, from Syria. What has been your assessment of the situation and what has been the role of the International Red Cross on that front?

The ICRC appreciates Ethiopia’s open door policy to people fleeing armed conflict and violence. At roughly 900,000 refugees, the country is hosting the second largest refugee population on the continent.  However, Ethiopia also has a displacement crisis of its own, with more than one million people uprooted this year as a result of violence, and greater international support is needed to help the government address the needs of its own displaced as well as those seeking asylum within its borders. 

Tell me about some of the work of the Red Cross in Ethiopia that is perhaps different from other NGO's operating in the country?

The ICRC has a unique role in the international community as a strictly impartial and neutral organization recognized by States to provide assistance to people affected by armed conflict and violence and uphold International Humanitarian Law.

In Ethiopia, the ICRC has two offices based in Addis Ababa. One is dedicated entirely to the African Union and focuses on sharing experiences and views on the humanitarian consequences arising from conflict. We have observer status to the AU and signed a cooperation agreement in 1992 with its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity.

The other is ICRC’s delegation in Ethiopia. We provide assistance to internally displaced Ethiopians, refugees, and other vulnerable groups such as household items, seeds and tools, and safe drinking water. We also offer physical rehabilitation services to people living with disabilities.

An area that is unique to the ICRC is our work in prisons to create adequate living conditions and encourage fair treatment of detainees—in the first half of 2018, our team visited 37,000 detainees in the country. We also work with the Ethiopia Red Cross to reconnect separated family members either through phone calls or letters known as Red Cross messages. Until recently, the Red Cross messages were the only way many families split between Eritrea and Ethiopia kept in touch over the years.

We also train security forces, the army, and the police on the use of force and international humanitarian and human rights standards.

How about the Global Compact on Migration that you said is one that puts “humanity first”?

The adoption by States in Marrakech earlier this week of the Global Compact was a very important step to create a more coordinated approach to migration, but it now needs to be followed by action to make a tangible difference for migrants and people on the move. If it is implemented, we believe that the Global Compact can help strengthen the protection of migrants, reduce their vulnerabilities, and uphold their rights, all while respecting the need and interest of States to protect their borders. We also call on States to prevent and alleviate the plight of families of missing migrants; use detention in migration as only a last resort and commit to never detaining children; and uphold their legal obligations under the principle of non-refoulement, which protects people from being sent back to a situation where they could face personal danger and persecution.

You are known as a long-time advocate for the promotion of International Humanitarian Law, the subject of your academic background, to prevent conflicts around the world. How is the world doing on advancing that?

First, to clarify, International Humanitarian Law does not exist to prevent conflicts, but rather to create limits to how warfare is carried out so that the lives and dignity of the civilian population are protected. 

The way in which wars are being carried out however is changing. For one, conflicts are becoming increasing fractured, with more armed actors, many of which would not have a central command structure which makes promoting International Humanitarian Law and respect for it more complex. The lines between military and civilian have been more blurred and battles are increasingly fought in urban areas using explosive weapons in densely populated areas. Conflicts are also lasting longer—in our 10 largest operations, we have been on the ground for an average of 36 years.

The consequences of these trends are completely devastating. International Humanitarian Law balances humanity and military necessity. When respected, IHL protects the lives and dignity of the civilian population and reduces the devastation caused by conflict, which can take countries years if not decades to come back from. Humanitarian aid also has limits—we can deliver food and water and provide medical care, but behaviour on the battlefield is paramount in reducing suffering in armed conflicts.

One of the most significant, yet little known programs outside of the NGO-circles  of the International Red Cross is its family reunification program that many credit for unifying families in areas of conflict. Tell me about that?

Families are often separated during armed conflicts and situations of violence. On dangerous migration routes, people can often disappear, leaving their families devastated and waiting for answers. Humanitarian aid often focuses on basic needs like food, water, and shelter, but people live in a constant state of uncertainty and grief if they do not know the fate of their loved ones. Globally, the ICRC, together with national societies including the Ethiopia Red Cross Society, is currently searching for approximately 100,000 people. This work may sound impossible, but every hour around the world we help a family separated by conflict call each other, every two hours we find a missing relative, and every day we reunite on average three families.

What is your assessment of the world’s acceptance and support of refugees in the world? Is there a donor fatigue from nations that can financially be generous?

There needs to be more support globally to help not only refugees, but also people who are internally displaced. If we look at Ethiopia as an example, the level of international funding to humanitarian organizations and attention paid to help the country address the needs of the 900,000 refugees and 2.8 million internally displaced Ethiopians is inadequate. This not only compromises the well-being of the displaced themselves, but also host communities, which are often resource-stretched themselves.

The humanitarian community also needs to adapt to how we address the needs of displaced people. As the world urbanizes, so does displacement, which makes the needs more dispersed and harder to detect. We need to go beyond providing for basic survival needs and help the displaced restore a sense of autonomy. This can be often seen as costly development programs, but could in the end be a more efficient use of resources, if people are able to make ends meet on their own.