The article is adapted from an address delivered by Dr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations on 7 September 2017.
The article was first published on Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs
During my five years as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross and as a historian by education, I have often viewed the humanitarian challenges of our time through the lens of the past. I have sought to understand where and how we might best carry forward the legacy of modern humanitarianism, which originated in nineteenth-century Europe, and through which the ICRC has played a critical role.
History is a patient teacher: It asks that we pause and reflect, taking a long view of the situations and experiences of those who have gone before us, to take note, to learn, and to adapt for today and for the future. It is in this spirit that I worked with the World Jewish Congress (WJC) on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps: as a reminder of the moral failures of the ICRC in protecting the Jewish people before and during the World War II, but also to reflect on lessons for the future. The anniversary event was an important moment to reflect on why and under which conditions throughout history we have been able to save millions of lives in certain circumstances, while failing miserably in others.
In that sense, I like to think of our common effort not as a closed chapter in history, but rather as an important occasion for reflection on genocide prevention and the protection of civilian populations in contemporary and future conflicts. Only through such processes of acknowledgment and deep analysis will the ICRC and other organizations be able to constantly renew themselves and their mission. I am grateful to WJC Chief Executive Officer Robert Singer and President Ronald S. Lauder for constantly reminding many others to self-critically look at our past and to charter new ways forward for civilian protection.
The ICRC’s own history stretches back more than 150 years, and its institutional memory has much to teach us about current conflicts and situations of violence. Our basic mandate and approach over the decades has always been to seek positive dynamics and interactions between our legal mandate, our operational work in the field, and our policy engagement with states.
I consider this combination of legal, policy, and operational perspectives in a single organization a policy innovation of nineteenth-century Europe, which has significance today. Independent of specific contexts, we:
• facilitate and negotiate neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian action;
• work with all parties, using the law as a practical guide and as an opportunity to find a way through tensions and difficulties that sometimes seem insurmountable; and
• engage in policy dialogues to ensure the best possible and least negative impact of warfare and security policies for people in need—or as the Geneva Conventions describe: for those not or no longer participating in hostilities.
The insights and experiences as a frontline negotiator inform our legal work, while principles and policies guide our practical response in more than eighty countries today.
While the ICRC’s mandate and status as a neutral, impartial, and independent organization have not changed much through the decades, the environment and the dynamics of violence and conflict have undergone rapid and deep transformation, in particular in the last few years.
It is certainly alarming that the ICRC has almost doubled its budget and operations in the last six years, and we see, too, that overall humanitarian budgets of the largest international aid agencies are skyrocketing.
Modern times seem to be dominated by wars and violence: decades-old conflicts on the African continent, multidimensional wars raging here in the Middle East, newly emerging crises in Ukraine, armed conflicts in Asia—as in Myanmar, which is making headlines—and skyrocketing urban violence in Latin America; the list is long indeed.
War is an undeniable feature of the present, and most likely a reality of our future. While the international community has rallied around the consensus of the Sustainable Development Goals in “leaving no one behind,” at the ICRC, we take a pragmatic view, recognizing that in the foreseeable future, sadly, people will be left behind and will need assistance and protection from organizations such as the ICRC.
In recent months, I have visited, among other places, ICRC operations in Syria (our largest worldwide) and Yemen (where we have doubled our budget to $100 million a year), and I have also traveled across South Sudan, Myanmar, and Ukraine.
It is not only a grim picture of unbridled violence and human suffering beyond measure that we see in many of these countries; it is a world in disorder with new challenges emerging for humanitarian and political actors.
What I saw in Yemen was, frankly, a stark reminder of how the pain of conflict deeply permeates communities, and how webs of political and military alliances can further complicate situations. For many people there, a basic, decent life is almost impossible.
Electricity and water supplies have been damaged. Hospitals have been attacked. People struggle to survive in poverty aggravated by war and are dying from easily treatable chronic diseases. Now a cholera outbreak is threatening the lives of more than half a million people. The import restrictions and warfare in frequent violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) is leading to hyper-fragility for as many as 20 million people.
In South Sudan, I saw how a brutal conflict is tearing apart that young country, leaving virtually no one untouched. After four years of fighting, one third of the population has been forced to leave their homes. This translates into four million people displaced, the equivalent of half the population of Israel. There is an ever-growing food crisis, with one in two people threatened each day with severe food shortages. We see similarly tragic situations in Somalia and in the Lake Chad region as well.
Here again, the situation is compounded by the lack of consensus among regional powers as to the future of South Sudan, resulting in political impasses and little progress toward peace.
In Myanmar, particularly in the Rakhine State, the government is struggling with deeply entrenched intercommunity conflict between Muslims and Buddhists. Far from being a local problem, the divisive issue is now on the international agenda, with no solution in sight. Each and every step in humanitarian assistance and protection for the Muslim population in Rakhine today leads to political polarization in the international community; few positive perspectives are offered, with the notable exception of former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and his advisory commission on Rakhine.
The conflict in Ukraine has cut a swath of destruction through the middle of Europe and has caused the biggest displacement of people from within this continent since World War II—even larger numbers than those from the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
In the heart of Europe, this conflict burdens the relationship between Russia, Europe, and the US—again with little agreement on even getting a consensus on modest humanitarian progress, let alone political solutions in this protracted situation.
These are but a few examples. On a personal note, it is heartbreaking to see the scale of suffering, and it is infuriating to see that humanitarian concerns are so low on the agenda of political actors.
As others have described, we are experiencing a proliferation of the culture of indifference. Indeed, in recent times around the world, we have seen this indifference grow into mistrust, xenophobia, and intolerance. Racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and more are polluting communities, including those whose members have lived in relative harmony for many years. These create deep wounds not easily overcome, and situations in which bitterness and hatred can breed.
While history would tell us that wars and human suffering are not new, it is evident that today we live in an immensely challenging environment. We see complex webs of asymmetric warfare, with many of the actors openly contemptuous of the rules of IHL. They are waging wars that are more protracted, deadlier, more fragmented, and more urbanized than at any other time in recent history.
It is increasingly difficult for the ICRC to find a humanitarian space in which to navigate the new realities of today’s conflicts, especially concerning the following factors:
• Conflicts are increasingly protracted. They are long term, fragmented, and complicated, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The conflicts in which we operate are increasingly long lasting: In our ten largest operations, we have been on the ground for an average of thirty-six years. We were established as a humanitarian organization to respond to emergencies but today we find ourselves in long, drawn-out conflicts. Decades of fighting and insecurity, and ongoing violations of the law of war, are destroying basic social infrastructure, and health, water, and sanitations systems, and have stalled education and economic development.
• As the world urbanizes, so, too, do wars. Today’s battlefields are now densely populated cities, as we see in Gaza, Aleppo, or Mosul, and it is civilians who increasingly suffer the consequences of violence and warfare. A recent ICRC report on Syria, Iraq, and Yemen found that five times more civilians have died in offensives carried out in cities than on other battlefields.
• There is a shocking lack of respect for the basic principles of international humanitarian law when it comes to the conduct of hostilities: The way war is being waged and the way weapons are being used is acceptable today in many of those contexts. We also see military strategies in which civilians become the primary object of attack rather than being the primary object of protection.
• Various types of violence—politically motivated, criminal, intercommunity—are intermingling and intertwining, which makes it increasingly difficult for humanitarian actors. We see international humanitarian law increasingly viewed as a transaction—as something to be negotiated among parties instead of something with which to comply. We see that political solutions to end conflicts are lacking. I am concerned that this indifference is translating to less willingness on the part of the international community to finance humanitarian work. Taxpayers in many countries question the value of financing humanitarian operations if there is no will to engage in creating peace and addressing the root causes of the conflicts.
While each conflict has its own particular logic, dynamics, and specificities, it is shocking to see how much the face of war and the impact of violence are similar from Taiz to Homs and to Gaza and beyond. The exponential growth of needs combined with limited response capacities leave millions of people without any hope for a dignified life. The key figures are indicative:
• 125 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance worldwide;
• 66 million are displaced by violence today, the highest number since World War II;
• In some conflict-ridden contexts, one in two children does not reach his or her fifth birthday; and
• 60 million primary-aged children cannot go to school.
I could provide many more examples, but in summary: The cost of violent conflict is an estimated $13 trillion annually, or 13 percent of global GDP.
In a world at war, the humanitarian response must be continuously rethought, recast, and reshaped. The people we help are asking us to address their various needs, which of course are not compartmentalized into neat categories such as humanitarian, development, peace, or human rights. Humanitarian aid must now not only consist of medicine, food, and shelter, but must also help with longer-term needs, such as repairing electricity, water, and sanitation systems, or caring for the psychosocial needs of traumatized populations.
More than just mitigating the obvious material effects of war through assistance, we are placing stronger emphasis on our protection responsibilities. Critically, to effectively protect populations, there must be changes in the behaviors of belligerents and in the policies of authorities and institutions so that they have the least negative effect on civilians.
International humanitarian law must be respected, so that people are saved from the very worst abuses, and conflicts do not spiral out of control. IHL is the tool that helps provide solutions, and aids parties in finding ways out of entrenched positions.
Today, from fully fledged military operations to more light-footed security strategies and to security restrictions in fighting terrorism, the ICRC is increasingly involved in legal, policy, and operational dialogues on the acceptable balances between military and security necessities and the protection of people as prescribed by IHL.
As these developments emerge, we are aware that the dilemmas that have accompanied us over the last 150 years remain:
• finding pragmatic solutions and adhering to our fundamental principles;
• engaging in dialogue with armed actors and advocating for victims;
• upholding the principles of neutrality and impartiality and advocating for behavioral change; and
• having to respond to long-term, protracted crises as an emergency organization.
These are complex, multilayered challenges with no simple answers. All modern humanitarian actors share the same dilemmas and challenges, and approach then differently.
For the ICRC, as the founding member of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, independence, impartiality, and neutrality remain our guiding principles, enabling high value-added responses, and helping to transcend the usual division between humanitarian, social, and development action, and between local, national, and international constituencies. Operating in almost every country around the world, the movement holds a unique position and has a distinct way of working.
In Israel, the Magen David Adom (MDA) has been a natural partner of the ICRC, even before it could formally join the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Today, we pride ourselves on a strong operational relationship not only in Israel, but also abroad: The ICRC strongly supports MDA’s status and contribution within the movement, including when it is deployed, with other national societies of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, to regions affected by conflicts or natural disasters, for example Ukraine, the Philippines, or Nepal. And of course, we would like to see the MDA and the Palestine Red Crescent Society engage in positive humanitarian cooperation, which transcends the political divisions in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Confronted with an accelerating dynamic of growing needs and limited response capacities, we are exploring new forms of partnerships with the private and academic sectors to make humanitarian work more effective.
In our partnerships with the private sector, we started moving away from a simple donor/recipient relationship some time ago. Today, we have an increasing number of partnerships that bring together the skills and interests of humanitarian organizations and businesses to solve difficult problems. Some of our pilot projects with large companies are allowing us to test flexible mini-grid energy solutions, or to install flexible and micro-scale hospital facilities.
We are also partnering to test innovative funding streams, including market-based instruments. In September, the ICRC launched the world’s first humanitarian impact bond to fund physical rehabilitation centers. In some ways, this is a radical step for the ICRC, but also a logical one, as we test opportunities not only to modernize the existing model for humanitarian action, but also new economic models, designed to better support people in need.
Digital connectivity, too, is allowing us to design more effective solutions, based on people’s self-identified needs, and also for more efficient coordination between services. We are working with the business and scientific communities to use the potential of big data to analyze contexts and needs, and to test platforms such as the Global Humanitarian Lab to develop new technologies.
The field of innovation is by no means limited to technological and financial developments. Over the last few years, as part of an exchange with leading universities, we have strengthened frontline humanitarian response through the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation.
Above all, we do not innovate for innovation’s sake. In these new approaches and in our more traditional work, we must put people and communities at the center in order to really understand their needs; co-design and implement an effective response that helps bolster their resilience; and ultimately ensure the sustainability of programs.
We hope that the private and the academic sectors in Israel will increasingly contribute to help to close the gap, and I welcome further advances in new and existing partnerships.
The ICRC has itself been working to fulfil its humanitarian mission in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the past fifty years. We assist and protect not only populations living under occupation, but affected people on both sides of the conflict, with the sole aim of upholding human dignity and limiting suffering. Based first and foremost on need, our main humanitarian activities are conducted in Gaza and in the West Bank. Beyond supporting critical services including health and water, our daily work focuses on detainees and vulnerable civilians. We monitor the use of force and the conduct of military operations, and present them to the parties concerned. We have seen the grief and trauma that weighs heavily on both Israelis and Palestinians and breeds further resentment and distance. It is a long, protracted conflict that awaits a just and fair peace.
Three years on from my last visit here, I am struck by the “crisis of hope” that has been described by many others before me. The hope for a better future for generations who have only known life under occupation has all but evaporated. That is true for West Bankers and striking among Gazans, who strive to deal with the daily practical realities resulting from power cuts, failing essential services, unemployment, uncertainty caused by intra-Palestinian confrontation, and fear of a new round of high-intensity, devastating conflict.
Beyond armed violence, there is a grief and trauma that has lasted for generations, and which weigh heavily on both Israeli and Palestinian communities. I sense it even more acutely than during my previous visits. It is clear that the cumulative impact of this conflict and the manifest hopelessness is wearing people down, fueling violence, and embedding resentment into the minds of all.
I can see no relief from this vicious cycle until the emergence of a fair and just peace agreement. What does “peacemaking” mean to an ordinary Israeli who faces a permanent threat and hostility against himself and his nation?
What does it mean for an ordinary Palestinian subjected to occupation since she was born? Increasingly, peace is referred to as an elusive, hollow, rhetorical concept—as if the current situation were normal, inescapable, and unsolvable. This is the reason why here in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and in the wider world, we are convinced that pending a credible sustained peace process, humanitarian action in law, policy, and operations can contribute to trust-building on all sides of the physical and mental frontlines. Indeed, IHL remains the only safety net to prevent conflicts and violence from spiraling into chaos and inhumanity.
I came to Israel and the Occupied Territories to understand what is working, too: the dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces, particularly in the context of the aftermath of, and lessons learned from, the 2014 Israeli–Gaza war. That privileged and substantive discreet dialogue, I believe, will help save lives in future military operations. That is one among several constructive—and even sometimes standard-setting—engagements here.
The ICRC’s access to decision makers, institutions, weapons-bearers, and communities, including detainees, farmers, and sick and injured persons, is remarkable, and translates into tangible humanitarian achievements. This is not something we take for granted. This proximity means that we can see the evidence of what is happening on the ground, and we can draw our own conclusions. History has taught us to rationally pause and reflect before making judgements or decisions.
We are aware, too, that sometimes humanitarian action is politicized, and we remain neutral and impartial—a principled compass in times of political pressure. For example, take the sensitive political issue of missing people. Across the world, there has been a spike in the number of missing people. Each of these is someone’s son or daughter, father or mother.
Their loved ones experience the ongoing, profound pain of not knowing their fate—not knowing if they are safe, not knowing if they need help, or not being able to say goodbye. Whether they are Colombian, Cambodian, Nigerian, or Palestinian, the ICRC cares about them all, as we care about Israeli missing people.
As president, I care deeply for the missing Israeli nationals. We are doing all we can to relentlessly push Hamas to account for them, treat them as provided under IHL, and spare their families the unbearable uncertainty. Similarly, the ICRC strongly advocates for the families of Palestinian missing people who remain unaccounted for, and urges that their remains be returned to their families for a dignified burial.
In taking this approach, the ICRC can face pressure or accusations all sides. The ICRC does all it can not to become politicized. While understanding the dilemmas, we focus on maintaining a strictly humanitarian role, with the law as our guide. The difficulty we face is very much linked to the fact that when we adhere to laws and humanitarian principles—and depending on the issue—we are seen as an actor, becoming political by either Israelis or Palestinians.
The ICRC is under constant pressure to legitimize both parties’ “humanitarian narrative,” and to help sustain, with palliative means, an inherently unsustainable situation characterized by systematic violations of principles of international law. There is hardly another conflict in the world in which the foundational contract of the Red Cross is so obviously challenged as it is in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Worldwide, we face unacceptable challenges of compliance with IHL. In many cases, and Israel and the Occupied Territories is not an exception, the parties question IHL’s relevance to the specific context, and often invoke a different or superior legitimacy to justify their actions and policies. As in many other parts of the world, we also see the logic of transactionalism at work, with statements, for example, such as: “I will give you information on missing people if I get my prisoners or missing people released.”
Sometimes, however, these arguments serve to release parties from their fundamental obligations and accountability. When and where to draw a line in the sand is a daunting challenge. For the ICRC, the response is guided by one simple question: What are the actual humanitarian consequences? From there, we look at what can be done and said to shape the future in a positive way
During our meeting here, I conveyed to Prime Minister Netanyahu our concern, from a legal, practical, and humanitarian perspective, about the settlement enterprise. Settlement policies have profoundly altered the social, demographic, and economic fabric of the Occupied Territories, and severely hindered Israel’s ability to fulfil its fundamental duty to administer the territory for the benefit of the local population. This situation is contrary to the founding principle of the Law of
Occupation, whereby the occupying power temporarily administers—but does not acquire—the occupied territory.
The establishment of the settlements entails a well-documented set of humanitarian consequences affecting the lives and dignity of Palestinians. We recognize the suffering of Israelis, but in the main, Palestinian civilians are paying too high a price for a situation largely produced by the settlement enterprise and its humanitarian consequences. This is an inescapable demonstration of the human cost of disrespect for the Law of Occupation’s foundational principles. It also has profound political implications, for the situation today and for tomorrow. The use of large swathes of occupied territory for settlements is further eroding any prospects for the territory’s development and undermining future reconciliation. When I visit the Occupied Territories, I am surprised at how much frustration there is even with the most moderate Palestinians that their lives are profoundly affected by the expansion of settlements and their livelihoods are affected. This is of great concern for the ICRC.
Israelis and Palestinians are entitled to a just and sustainable peace agreement—and that is different than a “deal.” To solve such a deep and broad conflict will require pragmatism and compromise, yet a political transaction that ignores fundamental humanitarian principles and the law is not good enough.
During my discussions and my visit here, I tried to impress on all parties the urgency of bringing international humanitarian law back to the table. Israel, in particular, must finally address the settlement enterprise’s legal and humanitarian consequences, in line with its clear obligations, both as an occupying power today, as an important, historical stakeholder of this global normative framework, and in order to remove this block to the peace process. To the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas authorities, and beyond, we convey our conviction that responsible policy-making must be built on human realities, which is precisely what international humanitarian law is about.
Respect for international humanitarian law is not a mere formality, or a constraint to ignore or discard; it is a necessary and positive tool with which to build a credible future we can all identify with. The law is humanity’s safety net. It is the minimum standard of what we should all accept. Based on our experiences every day around the world and in Khan Yunis, Tel Aviv, Hebron, or Jerusalem, this is what we at the ICRC can and wish to contribute to the discussion for a solution to the situation here.
It is obvious that today’s lack of respect for the basic principles of the law characterizes conflicts around the world, which in turn are increasingly long term and protracted, where a lack of political solutions hampers peace, and where the lines between civil and military activities are blurred.
As the “guardian” of the Geneva Conventions, we know about the many attempts to declare this or that part of the Conventions “not applicable” or outdated. I am very much aware that many Israelis and the Israeli government have a different opinion with regard to settlements than the one I presented to you and which is largely shared in the world today.
It is not because of lack of knowledge or disrespect that we are insistent on our views. The question we have asked ourselves for decades now is the following: Has the notion that Israel is not occupying anyone’s land, but settling on no-man’s land advanced or brought us further away from reconciliation between opposed aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians? Has this interpretation been a practical guide to help communities live together? Our reading of the situation is that it has had an immensely negative impact on the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike, which is only getting worse, and which is unlikely to bring us closer to peace.
Some would object to this and say that we should not worry about peace, because peace is a political concept that has nothing to do with the jus in bello perspective that a purely neutral and impartial humanitarian organization should take. On this point—and with all due respect—I would disagree, and refer to the vision of the founding fathers of the ICRC and modern humanitarianism. International humanitarian law, be it conventional or customary, while designed to be non-political and to ensure a minimum level of humanity in the worst of circumstances, has an overarching objective to help people live in peace and not to perpetuate itself in permanent warfare. The value proposition, the inherent benefit, of international humanitarian law is to promote behaviors that not only prevent the worst human suffering and devastation during war, but—precisely by doing so—allows for reconciliation after the war.
I often wonder how history will record the period in which we now live. Will people judge the decisions and despair at the struggles? Will they see that upon human suffering was piled yet more human suffering? Or will they be bolstered by the possibility that even faced with the most intractable challenges, a line could be drawn between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and thus a legacy could be passed to the next generation.
In my travels to Gaza, Ramallah, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to speak to officials and dignitaries. But I have to tell you very frankly that when I looked for the perspective of hope, I was most encouraged when I saw young Palestinians and young Israelis charting their own way forward, and casting off the usual narratives, arguments, and deadlocks. They were looking at creating jobs and at cooperating in order to map a new and innovative course for the future.
This is what fills me with hope: that society is striving to identify new realities and that there is something that transcends the current political discourse and the protracted conflict with which we have been dealing for fifty years.