Interview with Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC

13 March 2013

Since July 1, 2012, Peter Maurer has served as the new President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He replaced Jakob Kellenberger.

This 56-year-old diplomat, former Swiss Secretary of Foreign Affairs (DFAE) and former head of the Swiss Mission to the United Nations in New York, tells us about his trajectory, his new position, his priorities and the challenges that the ICRC will face over the coming years.


Tell us about your trajectory. What brought you to the ICRC?

Over the years, whether as a secretary of foreign affairs or as an ambassador, I sought to promote the interests of Switzerland and to position the country in Europe and in the world. I am committed to peace, human rights, migration and humanitarianism as well as international governance, so this kind of work gives me great satisfaction. But frequently, diplomatic service doesn't give you the opportunity to be in contact with countries' political and social realities. The ICRC presidency merges diplomatic concerns with those relating more to people's everyday needs. Also, the kind of influence and impact you can have on people's lives and on humanitarian values appealed to me. As president, I defend the values of the ICRC, and to some extent that means that basic necessities (e.g., health, water and supplies) have to be provided, often in difficult circumstances, for people who have been relegated to the fringes of society.

Was this the natural next step after having been the Secretary of Foreign Affairs (DFAE)?

Not really—nothing's really natural in a career. But diplomatic experience and possessing the address book of a Swiss diplomat can only help an ICRC president.

Why did you choose the path of diplomacy?

Early on, I was interested in international issues: history, different civilizations and cultures. I studied history and international law not because I aspired to a particular profession but because of my interests. Diplomacy gave me the opportunity to align my professional and personal passions.

What are the principles that guide your work?

I am open with people who seek transparency, exchange and debate. I believe in having a range of opinions. When it comes to my values, I am a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and a European open to and concerned with the world. At work, my intention is to promote a model of management that's more horizontal than hierarchical, more participatory than exclusive. I support people who take responsibility. I think that it's important to combat the weight of bureaucracy, to promote positive and productive collaboration and to never lose sight of why we are where we are.

I like to be flexible and proactive instead of waiting in my office for problems to come to me. I prefer to position myself where I can make a difference.

What leading figures or schools of thought have influenced your professional journey?

The study of history, most certainly, the confrontation with power, ideas, interests, the economic, social and cultural schools of thought, the structures and personalities. The fact that two of my professors at university were academics and members of parliament with myriad perspectives and methods, that they sought to build bridges between different worlds, also made an impact on me. I like reading books on philosophy and the history of the sciences, and I was greatly influenced by German culture and politics—from King Frederick II of Prussia and Otto von Bismarck to Willy Brandt. Having lived in the U.S. for ten years, I had the opportunity to become familiar with the Anglo-Saxon world. Finally, my grandmother was Italian—I do not compromise on the time it takes to cook pasta or on the quality of espresso.

Tell us about your new role as President. What exactly do you do?

My role is multi-faceted: first and foremost, I am a spokesperson for the victims of humanitarian crises and "forgotten conflicts," as well as for diplomatic activities that promote the ICRC and humanitarian action in general. Since taking on the role, I have observed the ICRC in the field in several countries, such as Afghanistan, Syria, Niger, Mali, Myanmar and lastly in Colombia, where I met with different actors in the conflict.

I want to reinforce our connection with long-established partners and create connections with new actors who are taking on increasingly significant responsibilities in the international context and who are interested in humanitarian action beyond their borders, such as Russia, Brazil, Mexico, China, Turkey, Qatar and Indonesia. In addition, I support ICRC operations in situations in which interaction with the political powers is vital. As president, I also oversee the management and administration of the organization. With the senior management, I consider what strategies we should implement as well as policies for personnel so that we have the best people for what is a demanding job.

Have you come up with a number of priorities in your presidency?

I will give particular attention to necessary diplomatic efforts to reinforce and expand our operations to help vulnerable groups and to support our initiatives in the area of law and the orientation of humanitarian politics. I want to be open with our personnel—at our headquarters and in the field—so that we can tailor our work in particularly sensitive contexts and with actors who can often be rather difficult. I intend to sustain our solid relations with our existing support and to strengthen our engagement and our international base. The interplay between our operational, legal and political activities is particularly close to my heart. In the end, I will devote myself to deepening our relationships within the humanitarian community, beginning with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement but also with local and international NGOs, the United Nations family, scientific groups and relevant professionals.

What are the main hurdles you've run into since you've been in office?

The hurdles I've run into concern me less than developments that present real challenges for humanitarianism: politicization of humanitarian action, the transformation of conflicts and new weapons, and the fragmentation of armed groups. Each of these hurdles creates increasingly complex situations, especially with respect to humanitarian access and the security of our employees. Social media are changing the relationship between traditional organizations and beneficiaries—this is an area where the impact on humanitarian action is not well measured. These developments require a great deal of flexibility, the capacity to think strategically, and a delicate balance between tradition and innovation, uniqueness and a willingness to work in partnership with others.

What similarities and differences do you see between your role now and your previous posts as a Swiss diplomat?

The structure of the ICRC is different than that of the Department of Foreign Affairs. At the DFAE, my agenda was thematically more expansive but not as complex as it is now. At the ICRC, my work is more focused and requires more specific expertise. In my previous role, I represented an administration that worked within the parameters of the foreign politics of the Swiss Federal Council. Today, I help to oversee an organization and I also have operational duties.

The ICRC is presently in 80 countries around the world and employs more than 12,000 people. What kinds of information do you keep up with—how and why?

As president, my first concern is having all the information necessary to determine our strategic orientation and to respond appropriately to challenges relating to humanitarian policy, to our operations and to the development of international law – areas which are of interest and fall within my responsibility. I do like having plenty of information at my fingertips, but that's not to say that I want to micromanage. I have enormous confidence in my colleagues, and I know that I can count on their judgement regarding any news that should be sent my way and would be necessary for me to do my job.

Is there a particular event or encounter that has stood out to you since you took office?

In the last few months, I have had the opportunity to travel more than once to the field. I saw people engaged in enormous acts of courage, exemplary resistance, a sort of resilience.

During my mission in Afghanistan, I visited Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, in the south of the country, where I met a father who was keeping a vigil at the bedside of his son, and that left an impression. His eight-year-old boy had lost all four limbs in an IED attack the day before I arrived, and their lives had been shattered by this tragedy. The image of the father, dignified and accepting, will always stay with me.

In your opinion, what challenges should the ICRC rise to over the course of next ten years?

In terms of challenges, I want to emphasize the tension between the concept of neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action and the politicized humanitarian action we see today, the so-called "humanitarianization" of politics—politico-military initiatives or agendas that are "sold" under the cover of humanitarianism. The question of security is also a constant concern. We have to find a balance between the need to reach people suffering from humanitarian crises and the risks we take to gain access to them.

Striking this balance between our humanitarian aspirations and the political realities of our time, between our operational objectives and the means at our disposal in the context of ever-increasing fiscal constraint, is what's at stake for our organization.

The introduction of new technologies, new methods of communication along with the pursuit of efficacy and professionalization are important factors to take into account. I turn resolutely toward the future, to the use of new technologies and management systems, and to partnerships with other organizations.

In the years to come, it will be important to continue to lead our organization toward increasing efficiency. We will have to find a balance between our identity, the specific nature of the ICRC and being open to cooperating with other humanitarian organizations. 

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