Jacques De Maio, 50, left his first mission in ICRCs delegation in Israel and the occupied territories in 1993. In this interview, you can read why he chose to return as the new head of delegation.
Welcome to Israel and the occupied territories, how are you?
Thank you, I’m very well! It’s actually one of those “feel-good” moments in life when one’s personal and professional lives are well aligned – all the more since I live in a fascinating context, where I feel ICRC can make a difference. I’m lucky.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a very normal guy, fifty years-old (20-something years old at heart though), married, two grown-up kids. I’m Swiss by birth, a sociologist by training, a skydiver by hobby, and I’ve spent the last 27 years dealing with wars and their impact on human beings around the world.
Why did you join the ICRC and what has made you stay for so long?
To be honest, my main motivation as a young man, was to travel in the real world, and not as a tourist. I tried making a living as a sailor, then as a journalist. I did not have a “humanitarian calling” at all. I actually looked upon “humanitarian workers” as patronizing and naive pacifists, and I would have none of that.
But one night I met a fellow recruit from my time in the army who was back from an ICRC mission in Salvador, and what he told me about his experience got my attention. I applied, spent two years in Pakistan and Afghanistan (it was during the conflict between the Soviet-backed government and the Mujahedeen), organizing aid to displaced civilians and the evacuation and treatment of war-wounded across the border. I loved it because it was an exciting life to say the least, and my message was plain and simple: “you fight all you want, but wars have rules. Non-combatants should be protected and when people, anyone, get hurt, let’s help them.” That was it. And it worked. I was hooked...
Each mission was fascinating, from the wars in the Balkans to the Gulf wars, the Great Lakes, Peru, Rwanda, Somalia and others. I have seen the best and the worst in people, been in extraordinary places, met remarkably noble human beings as well as despicable ones. Despite all the frustration and indignation that come with this job, I have always believed that at the end of the day we are making a difference, sometimes for one single person and sometimes for millions of people. I appreciate the ICRC’s independence: we are able to go to places and do things other humanitarian organizations cannot, and work addressing real needs, not on the basis of priorities as defined by short-lived media trends or diplomats at cocktail parties. I felt personally fulfilled, and my professional life has meaning. I share the raison d’être and the values of the ICRC. That’s what’s made me stay.
What does it mean to be head of delegation and what does your job entail?
A head of delegation is like the captain of a ship, he/she is accountable for what the ICRC ultimately achieves or not, and his/her job is to ensure that ICRC’s institutional mission materializes as effectively as possible in a given context or “operational theatre”. My main tasks are to provide a reality-based direction to the delegation, and to ensure our staff has the means to respond in the best possible way to the human needs and issues generated by conflict, armed violence, and as in this context, occupation policies.
You were based in Geneva as head of operations for South Asia, including Afghanistan, why did you want to return to the field?
I spent half of my career with the ICRC in the field, and half at Headquarters. I loved all of it. From Geneva, I ran strategic deployments in places like Sudan, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and also had my share of bureaucracy, sterile diplomacy, the political economics of international humanitarianism, etc. Now that my kids are grown up and have left the nest, I felt it would be more fulfilling to reconnect with the realities of field operations and escape from what – sometimes – appears to me to be the political and humanitarian “circus”.
You have worked in Israel and the occupied territories before, why return to this context?
Once you have been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it sticks with you forever. The dynamics and high stakes at play are so important in so many ways. As an observer of international politics and a simple citizen worried about the world to be inherited by the next generation, I cannot ignore the impact of what happens (or doesn’t happen) here. As an ICRC delegate, I also see a context which on the one hand challenges humanitarian law at its core, and on the other offers a space to do some concrete good.
It is part of the ICRC’s job to deal with people from the world of politics and security who just want to keep you in a little, manageable, even insignificant box. People who don’t want to hear what you have to say, because it does not fit their political or bureaucratic agenda. Realpolitik is the name of the game. This often results in polite diplomatic exchanges with no real substance and that bear no fruit. I know that in Israel one must be ready for heated discussions with a lot of substance, and in many cases, they even bear fruit.
I was also very interested to work with the Palestinian authorities, and see how we can reinforce their ability – through the good access and constructive dialogue we are currently experiencing – to deal with some of the issues under their responsibility.
Last but not least, I find it hugely refreshing and relieving that the security environment here is incomparably better, it has nothing to do with what I had to deal with in previous assignments in Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan for example.