Fletcher Features

President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer Speaks on Neutrality, Impartiality and Challenges of Professional Humanitarian Work in Modern Conflicts

Dr. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), addressed students and faculty of The Fletcher School as part of the Charles Francis Adams Lecture series. In his remarks, he reflected on the ICRC at 151 years old. Maurer referred to the ICRC's work as an "innovation," combining legal and humanitarian tasks with a prominent advocacy role for the promotion of International Humanitarian Law. Across the years of advocating for compliance with the laws of war and the creation of a humanitarian space in armed conflict, he said, the ICRC has learned a number of lessons and depended on continuous adaptation to remain relevant and effective in the modern battlefield.

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Dr. Maurer outlined five major challenges that any professional humanitarian actor must confront in the 21st century: access insecurity, conflict-spawned regional contagion and instability, the complex interrelated dynamics of conflict and humanitarian crises, the impact of technological development and the synchronizing of coordinated responses involving the broader humanitarian community.

Speaking particularly of Syria, Dr. Maurer said it presented an “absurd” situation, where the “ability to have access and security is not keeping pace with the development of the crisis and the humanitarian impact of the armed conflict.He highlighted how the development of the conflict was a case in point of access insecurity where restrictions on travel and safety in transit complicated the delivery of humanitarian relief. Calling the level of obstruction faced in Syria "outrageous," he described a convoy route between Damascus and Aleppo. The trip, which could once be navigated with less than a day's notice, now involves negotiating for over a week and passing more than 50 checkpoints run by various factions. Meanwhile, spillover effects and mass displacement caused by the Syrian crisis were destabilizing the entire region. The ICRC, he noted, had moved beyond national response plans to formulating interlinked plans to address an expanding "region of instability." Dr. Maurer cautioned that much of the resistance to the ICRC's work was a result of humanitarian efforts being perceived as part of a broader political agenda, which he called "too heavy a burden" to place on the humanitarian community. 

In response to a question, he drew attention to the ICRC's status of being exempt even from bearing witness before international courts.

“We have a unique opportunity to have humanitarian aid delivered as long as we can maintain our confidentiality and are not forced to be witness in something which is another agenda, the accountability agenda for international war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Dr. Maurer said. This enables the ICRC to work even with alleged perpetrators, or to have access to imprisoned populations, whose conditions of incarceration would surely trigger prosecution for imposing inhumane conditions if they were reported. 

Dr. Maurer had earlier been introduced by Dean James Stavridis as a career diplomat for Switzerland, and with particular reference to his advocacy work with the U.S. government over the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Dr. Maurer also took the opportunity to point out that such engagement - "humanitarian diplomacy" - had always been an integral part of the ICRC's work. "I think it’s only through the political engagement,” Dr. Maurer said, “that we can create and maintain apolitical spaces.”

--Ameya Naik (F15)

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