Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaks about his organization’s struggle to supply humanitarian aid to war zones in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.
Die Zeit: Your organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is engaged in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. You’re allowed to work there because you don’t speak about what you see. Are there moments when you do talk about it?
Peter Maurer: We witness daily how the law is broken and how parties to a conflict go too far. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be there. That is our basic dilemma. The question is always whether we have a chance, with the necessary discretion, to change behaviors that otherwise wouldn’t change if we were talking about what we see. If discretion no longer achieves those goals, if it doesn’t enable us, for example, to protect people in prisons, but rather puts them in even greater jeopardy, then occasionally we break this discretion.
Are there currently regions where you are contemplating withdrawing from?
We ask ourselves that question all the time and everywhere. Humanitarian action is fundamentally a constant ethical conflict.
Has the world gone crazy, is this something new, or does it just look that way right now?
In the past 150 years, we’ve seen world wars and genocide. Much of what appears particularly intense to us is really nothing new. However, we’ve noticed that conflicts are becoming more complicated. We are dealing with organizations that have no clear hierarchy or chain of command.
How do you negotiate when there are several parties involved rather than just two opponents?
Our work is more complicated. And it takes longer to make a humanitarian mission happen. In Aleppo (Syria), we worked for a year and a half in order to gain the trust of the conflict parties just to create a small humanitarian space.
A few years ago, there was a debate over whether you could speak with the Taliban, whether there was such a thing as a moderate Taliban. Should we also talk to the Islamic State?
Moderation isn’t what matters for us. We ask the question whether it’s an armed conflict or if it’s violence that has a humanitarian effect on people. We talk to the armed participants and those controlling territory where the population is suffering from the repercussions of violence. The IS group controls an area where more than 10 million civilians live. That’s why the first question for us is whether there is a humanitarian problem there. The next question is whether we can solve this problem. Only then is it about establishing direct or indirect contact to those controlling that territory.
Video: Peter Maurer meets people displaced by Al Anbar violence.
How do you call the IS? With whom are you speaking there?
We have been engaged in Iraq for decades. We naturally know many of those involved on all sides. Many of those responsible in some function within the IS group belong to those 30,000 to 35,000 prisoners that we’ve visited in Iraq for the past 15 years. They are in positions of responsibility in Mosul. When I was in Iraq last March, I visited villages where the black (IS) flag was already waving. But my contacts were with the tribal leaders in these regions. There is an overlapping. So we try to get as clear a picture of the situation as possible to determine with whom we need to negotiate.
It’s a big step to acknowledge someone politically when you’re fighting them militarily. I can only say what’s necessary for a credible humanitarian mission: dialog with all involved.
Should politicians also speak to the IS?
It’s a big step to acknowledge someone politically when you’re fighting them militarily. I can only say what’s necessary for a credible humanitarian mission: dialog with all involved. Otherwise we’ll have difficulty creating a humanitarian space.
After the IS conquered vast amounts of territory, it suddenly became part of the West’s public awareness. Then came the question: How could the intelligence community not be aware of it?
It’s not as if we haven’t been mentioning for years how we see the political situation in certain areas developing. The question is whether that knowledge is politically opportune or not. I don’t decide that as the representative of a neutral, impartial humanitarian organization.
Do you have access to all parts of Syria?
Certainly not. There are enormous restrictions. There is no official decision from the IS group to give us or another organization some sort of permission. Each operation has to be negotiated anew. We have specific access. We have supplied the infirmary in Mosul with medicine twice. We’ve supplied a few villages and cities near Mosul and Homs. We’ve repaired the water supply in Raqqa. We’ve supplied an infirmary in Fallujah with medicine. We do these things, but not every day, not all the time.
How does the IS rule affect daily life?
It’s a complex picture. Some places have been destroyed, in others life has taken on some sort of normalcy. Violent conflict isn’t part of daily life there. These areas have very different and varied forms of local rule.
At the moment, what is the biggest humanitarian problem facing the population in Syria?
The health sector in the entire region is perhaps the most problematic. War has left many doctors, nurses and caregivers dead or they’ve fled. There was a good healthcare system in Syria and Iraq before the war. Starting in January 2013, we’ve had growing indications that there are not just short-term care issues, but that the system is collapsing. Death is no longer coming just from armed violence, but also due to normal, chronic illnesses that can no longer be treated because there are no doctors, medicine, clinics or nurses. This dynamic has engulfed the entire region.
What about water?
A huge problem. There is displacement on a never-seen-before scale in the region. Now people are where there’s no water supply. And where it still functions or it’s been destroyed, there are no people. Sometimes we don’t know what to do: Should we repair it? Or is it pointless? Shouldn’t we rather invest where the people have now settled?
So the Islamic State is not in a position to keep its promise of a normal life with a half-functioning state?
I’m not sure at the moment if they can partially achieve that or not manage at all to provide a minimum of services.
We humanitarian organizations are pushed to the limit. We can’t solve the problems causing the repercussions we address. Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross
There is a big debate whether the Arab Spring has disappointed people, that they’d rather have stability over democracy today.
That’s a political question that I cannot address as the president of the ICRC. I can only continue to point out to political leaders everywhere the cost of political decisions and priorities. There are always more important issues than humanitarian ones – until suddenly the problems take on such dimensions that they spiral out of control. We humanitarian organizations are pushed to the limit. We can’t solve the problems causing the repercussions we address.
There is also the misuse of humanitarian missions. Such as when Russia sent aid convoys into Ukraine with unknown cargo, even though it is also involved in the conflict.
That’s a phenomenon causing us great worry for some time – that helping those in need is merely an excuse to raise a national flag to show support for this group or that one. This includes the victims of earthquakes and other catastrophes, as well as other missions. The hard thing for humanitarian organizations is that such missions without a doubt help ease humanitarian suffering. But the question is whether they help contribute to the resolution of a conflict. I tried to make that clear during a recent trip to Moscow. But there are also many other examples. In Syria, everyone pushed us to bring humanitarian aid to wherever we could even without the permission of the Syrian government. In a different context, however, those same countries criticize when a state refuses to take the Ukrainian borders seriously while providing humanitarian services.
What are you doing currently in Ukraine?
We are actually active in the entire region between western Russia and western Ukraine. We are in Rostov, Donetsk, Luhansk, Simferopol, in Crimea, in Kharkiv, Odessa, Kiev and in two or three other places in Ukraine. The Donbas has become one of ICRC’s fastest-growing humanitarian operations in the past 12 months. We have supplied clinics, trained doctors. We have surgeons there to treat war casualties. We are repairing water supply systems. We are delivering food for the displaced.
Are you dealing more with Ukrainian separatists or Russian citizens in those areas not under the Ukrainian government’s control?
It’s incredibly difficult to determine the true identity of those we’re dealing with. Our main contact is the authorities in Luhansk and Donetsk. As in every conflict, we are always asking ourselves who has influence over whom.
Is that why you’re travelling to Moscow?
Of course, I’m travelling to Moscow. And to Berlin and Paris and Washington and Brussels. It’s a multifaceted situation. We are one of the few organizations operating in western Russia, in Crimea and Donbas because we’ve managed to be credible, neutral and independent. That is a difficult balance in this conflict.
As a humanitarian organization, what do you think of the debate about weapon deliveries?
At the ICRC, we are not convinced that more weapons create greater security. We have seen too much evidence for just the opposite.
This interview first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: [email protected]