ICRC president: We must re-establish a “chain of responsibility” in conflict

06 March 2019

Humanitarians are facing increasingly complex battlefields with an "explosion of movements and organisations", the ICRC's president has told a gathering at the University of London.

Speaking at last night's event entitled 'Aid and Development in the Age of Brexit', Peter Maurer warned that the number of parties to each conflict now routinely reaches double figures, coupled with a lack of consensus among the world's major powers.

Maurer was addressing an audience at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) alongside panellists Baroness Valerie Amos, director of SOAS; Sir Michael Aaronson, ex-chief executive of Save the Children UK; and Stephen Hopgood, SOAS professor of international relations.

Maurer said: "This front line is not any more one or two parties to the conflict. It's an explosion of movements and organisations which are weaponised, and which pursue their interests in their respective conflicts. Most of the big conflicts now have ten or more parties.

"What adds to the complication is that these groups are not anymore acting autonomously. The chain of command ends somewhere.

"The fragmentation of the international system, the lack of consensus among the big powers, the power competition at regional level, transforms itself into spaces which are unregulated."

However, the Geneva Conventions remain the accepted framework of engagement in conflict in every country in the world. "Nobody pushes us out of the door when we come in and say that we have a problem with the way you respect humanitarian law," said Maurer.

"In many places, it's civilians asking belligerents to respect International Humanitarian Law. It's a powerful tool for communities."

Baroness Amos told the gathering: "There's huge politicising of humanitarian aid. The average conflict now lasts for about ten years, but some protracted crises have gone on much, much longer than that.

"What we're seeing is humanitarian work almost taking the place of the long-term development work that we need to see.

"This is extremely problematic. We are leaving people to live in the most appalling conditions. The move towards greater nationalism, the narrowing of our sense of responsibility for others, the lack of accountability from countries that have signed up to the Geneva Conventions yet are not promoting them, I see as a tremendous cause for concern."

Sir Michael Aaronson, ex-chief executive of Save the Children UK who now chairs the Strategic Advisory Group for the Global Challenges Research Fund, said the power of academia must be harnessed to solve global problems.

"We're interested in how academics can work better with policymakers, and practitioners – so NGOs, UN agencies, as well as governments – and we're interested in seeing really strong partnerships being forged between the research community in this country, and the research community in the global south," said Aaronson. "It's an opportunity for young people, who really care about global challenges but want to work on research, to pursue that passion and interest."

Maurer also called on parties to conflict to "re-establish a chain of responsibility", saying: "Partnered warfare and shunning responsibility, transferring responsibility to the battlefield, to the partners supporting these organisations, weaponising either state armed forces or non-state armed groups... it's important that we re-establish the dialogue on roles and responsibilities."