Humanitarian perspectives on international security in times of mutating conflicts Geneva Centre for Peace and Security

Geneva Centre for Peace and Security
29 May 2015, Geneva, Switzerland
Speech given by Mr. Peter Maurer
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Ambassador Dussey,
Dear colleagues,
Dear friends,

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the GCSP, its leadership, staff, and fellows on the substantial contribution to both the academic debate and training around security and peace policy for now 20 years.

Given from where I am speaking today, let me start with a few personal remarks:
Security has been somewhat of a leitmotif throughout my career. For the past twenty years, and still now, I have been involved in operating, concretizing and developing concepts of security – all during a time where the notion of security and its purposes in policy and practice have not stopped growing.

  • More than 20 years ago, as an official in the Foreign Office, I worked with Defense and Police Ministries to adapt and strengthen national security policies in view of new challenges in the international environment. I witnessed an evolving landscape of risks and the shift of focus from the defense of national territory by military means to managing more comprehensive economic, societal, technological and environmental risks, as well as emerging security challenges like cybercrime and new forms of terrorism;
  • 15 years ago, I was made head of a newly created Human Security Division in the Swiss Foreign Ministry. The concept and practice of Human Security we developed from there, introduced the instruments of soft power to the traditional toolbox of national security policies. Our focus was to protect individuals and societies from violence, rather than states, borders and institutions. This shift, from structural to human, came with a new interest in conflict mediation and transformation through non-military tools;
  • I then moved on to become the Permanent Representative of Switzerland – which had just joined the UN – and thereby became both a shareholder and operative in the global collective security system that States had created after the Second World War. In the midst of post-Cold War transformation, I witnessed the power shifts and tensions, in international relations. Today, as President of the ICRC since 2012, my first priority is to create a safe and secure space for neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action, in an increasingly complex and conflictual international environment.

While I am glad to be here with you to discuss a humanitarian perspective on international security, it comes with an odd flavor when the President of ICRC speaks on such an issue. Representing an organization rooted in the "jus in bello" framework of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC is the living proof of the international community's failure to establish a functioning security system.

At the same time, the ICRC has been particularly close to the transformation of conflict dynamics and security challenges over the decades and all the important developments in our humanitarian world (and thus of the jus in bello framework) have happened as a reaction to the transformation of battlefields, weapons, arms bearers and victims in armed conflict, which are at the same time critical reference points for any credible security system.

The question therefore is: Are we confronted today with just a temporary deterioration of our environment or - are we experiencing yet again a more fundamental transformation of warfare and of our security environment overall? And can thus a humanitarian perspective to international security offer insights into some broader challenges to which the Security Community that you represent has to deal with. Before responding, let me take a couple of steps back to explain a little bit more from where we are coming.

When you work at the ICRC, be it as delegate in the field, as head of operations, or as President for that matter, your first thought will likely be about security. Our institutional genetics are defined by the fact that we provide security to people in some of the worst circumstances and at the same time we need security in order to deliver on our mandate to assist and protect those not participating in hostilities. Our first concern is the well being of people who suffer from the violence and conflicts around them. To be able to help them, we take precautions to ensure the maximum safety and security of our staff. We do so through a decentralized approach to security, based on risk-prevention, risk-reduction and limited risk taking. In turn, our operations create security for beneficiaries and staff, through the focus on acceptance, transparency and a panoply of assistance and protection activities. I believe that creating such a minimal space for humanity in the midst of conflict must also be the starting point of a more comprehensive security system.

It is an undeniable reality that we are exposed to the rapidly deteriorating safety and security patterns in today's conflicts.

  • We see more, longer, more protracted and deeper conflicts, often exacerbated by natural disasters – Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia represent cases in point.
  • We see a growing number of regionalized conflicts, which question the ability of national delivery systems to respond to essential needs of communities for water, food, housing, health and education. We see an implosion of public services for which – the Syrian crisis has been the most telling example in the last couple of years.
  • We see fragmented powers, which themselves have increasing difficulties to navigate de-structured conflicts with an ever growing number of arms bearers and authorities and which can be an obstacle to access civilian populations.
  • We see warfare moving from open battlefields into city centers, threatening more people and making the distinction between combatants and civilians increasingly difficult. We see new forms of warfare and weapons with a heavier impact for civilians and insufficient clarity on some of the fundamental provisions of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
  • We see broad disregard for IHL and Human Rights Law by both States and non-State actors.
  • And finally, we see all this translated in record numbers of population displacements, the highest amount of refugees and internally displaced people since World War II.

Explanations for this deterioration are multiple. They range from the lack of consensus on collective security objectives among powers at regional and global level, to the disempowerment of international institutions driven by national antagonisms; from the lack of trust on the viability of traditional peace and security mechanisms to the lack of a broadly accepted leadership role in the international system. I have the subjective impression that exclusion, discrimination in justice and not just poverty are the drivers of this situation.

For us as humanitarians, the current international system leads first and foremost to a more contested humanitarian space. For the difficulty to find political solutions to such a deteriorating environment, political and security actors have discovered humanitarian action as a low hanging fruit to advance broader and more transformatory goals like human rights, rule of law, democracy,peace and security. Expanding humanitarian agendas and activities are somehow replacing diplomatic and political action to build a more durable international security system today.

As humanitarian actors we are highly uncomfortable with such situations, which we experience as a politisation of the humanitarian space and as a deep contradiction to the broad acknowledgement that humanitarian action cannot solve political problems.

For safe and secure humanitarian action we rely on a true and tested consensus-based approach, on proximity and engagement with all weapons bearers, on self limitation to what action compatible with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence and thus to an approach in diametrical opposition to the power or force-based approach of other actors. The seemingly trendy integration of peace, security, human rights and humanitarian objectives is in contradiction to the distinct neutral, impartial and independent approach, with potentially disastrous effects for the perception and acceptance of humanitarian actors.

At the same time, we are amongst the first ones to acknowledge on the basis of our direct experience that we are facing a new type of (mutating) conflict situations today and therefore some of the previous assumptions guiding our action may have to be thought through carefully.

The ICRC is no longer operating only in a model of political conflicts derived from:

  • The use of military force,
  • between autonomous political actors,
  •  as a mean of projecting power over one another,
  • in a delineated context with a particular political end-goal.

While the Clausewitz model still explains the dynamic of some of the traditional battlefields in which the ICRC operates, (e.g. Ukraine, Colombia), ICRC's original approach is increasingly challenged by the occurrence of conflicts with distinct features from the traditional model, such as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. In these new contexts parties are no longer construed or understood strictly as autonomous political organizations confronting each other over ideology, territory or resources. On the contrary, parties to mutated conflicts tend to fragment and transform as the conflict evolves.

While contexts matter in terms of military and political symbols over which parties attempt to exercise some kind of control (e.g. parties "controlling" parts of Yemen, Anbar Province, Somalia, or Libya), the ideological or military demonstration of power seems to matter much more than the actual tactical impact of military operations toward a particular end-goal (e.g. Saudi bombing campaign over Yemen, Shabaab attacks on Kenyan students, kidnapping of Yazidi or Nigerian civilians). As conflicts become protracted and parties tend to fragment, we observe a growing confusion on the political end goals to the conflict. The lack of a political end goal, in turn, hinders regional and international mediation efforts and perspectives of stability in the affected region.

The connections, alleged or actual, between the parties through military and political alliances are becoming key vectors of conflict dynamics, involving the movement of both resources and fighters across conflict zones (e.g. Taliban, ISIS and foreign fighters operating in Afghanistan, pitched against NATO sponsored and supported Afghan forces). While the context remains paramount in the day-to-day conduct of hostilities, loose connections between the parties dictate strategic choices, with some similarities with the Cold War time but in a much more loose way; the allegiance of Boko Haram to ISg would be an illustration in point.

The display of merciless and indiscriminate violence plays an important part in this demonstration of power since these actors are purposefully dissociating themselves from previous regimes or the maintenance of any particular universal order, but rather are aimed at the destruction of accepted legal, social and cultural norms in a particular context;

The role of social media, and through it the traditional media, is paramount as a vehicle to disseminate this demonstration of power and determination of the parties as an end goal of the military operations.

In other words, one could argue that some of the most challenging environments confronting the ICRC today are not simply the results of the deterioration of traditional Clausewitz-type environments getting more violent and complex, but rather mutated forms of specific conflict environments.

The ICRC has been confronted by similar shifts in conflict environments across its history. They often related to a change of generation of means and methods of warfare. These shifts have called for significant adjustments in protection strategies, both in terms of vulnerable groups targeted by the ICRC, and in terms of means of engagement.

Since there seem to be no clear end-goal to these mutating conflicts, the ICRC needs to operate in such context of un-clarity for an extended period of time, which again has an impact upon the mobilization of resources and the planning of operations.

Since mutating conflicts are driven by the demonstration of coldblooded determination and brutal provocations, the ICRC needs to operate increasingly in the intricacies of these conflicts, in close connection with civil society groups such as the national societies, local NGOs and like minded partners like Doctors without borders. Its legitimacy can no longer just rest on "ensuring respect" for the universal rules of IHL as such because such universality is fundamentally questioned by the new actors, but on its ability to build and maintain relationships with all the parties in all circumstances, animated by a pragmatist sense of humanity, not compromising on core values, but not pushing for any sort of politicized accountability or governance regime.

The ICRC further maintains its efforts to build relationships with parties and institutions at the local, regional and international levels specific to a particular conflict, as a mean to create a network of positive interlocutors needed to sustain these pragmatic operations over the long-run.

In our multi-polar world, with multi-layered conflicts and a multitude of actors and approaches to the creation and safeguarding of security, humanitarian aid depends on the overarching consensus that a humanitarian space, separate from political and power competition, can and must exist. The humanitarian perspective on security is hence multidimensional: we seek proximity to all the relevant actors, acceptance by authorities, respect for IHL by States, and understanding of our mission and means by all, for a secure and safe humanitarian space, even in the midst of conflict and violence.