IISS Manama Dialogue : Keynote Address by Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Speech given by Mr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

The IISS Manama Dialogue,16th Regional Security Summit, Manama


The question I am most often asked in interviews is "What are the concerns that keep you up at night?" My greatest concern is not one single issue or place, but the "death by a thousand cuts" inflicted upon too many people in conflict zones over too many years.

All the signs today point to chronic instability: global and regional power competitions unresolved, fragmentation and proliferation of actors, marginalization and stigmatization of populations in the aftermath of wars, reconstruction slow or non-existent. The human and societal cost of conflict in the Middle East alone has been catastrophic. The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots has left many with deep feelings of injustice and frustration. This comes on top of persistent "development deficits" that are holding back parts of the region. The Arab Human Development Report highlighted the lack of inclusive citizenship, women's empowerment, perspectives for youth, the development of a knowledge society, and the challenges of a lack of security. Other alarming dynamics at play in the region include:

  • the large-scale, systemic destruction of towns and cities and the absence of mitigating measures that uphold international humanitarian law, or IHL
  • the unconstrained arms trade, which disregards restrictions on the use of weapons
  • the development of new weapons without due consideration for ethical or humanitarian impacts
  •  the winding back of protections in the name of "the fight against terrorism"
  •  the expedient interpretation of the law, which prioritizes military objectives over civilian lives
  • the widening distance between the front line and those calling the shots
  • • the political instrumentalization of humanitarian aid and the obstructions caused by sanctions and bureaucracies, which hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

On my regular visits to the region, the devastating human face of indiscriminate warfare is clear. I meet those who have lost family members, homes, and livelihoods. They are exhausted with the years of violence; and they describe wars fought without mercy or humanity. They want their lives back: jobs, education, safety. And they want hope – which for many, right now, seems elusive.
This region is the focus of the ICRC's work, with at least a third of our global field budget of CHF 604 million, to be spent here in 2021. Syria has been our largest operation for eight years in a row.
This year marks 40 years of ICRC operations in Iraq. We have been in Yemen for more than 60 years, Afghanistan for 33. This is an era of protracted conflict, where countries are in crisis for decades, and where suffering and trauma is extended across generations.

Children are growing up in the rubble of buildings, their education lost. People are displaced three, four, five times over. Families from Syria live in tents in Lebanon nine years after they fled. For those searching for missing loved ones, the years pass, their grief does not.

Today, there is one big zone of instability – extending from western Sahara via Libya to Iraq in the north, and through the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa in the south. Conflicts in the Middle East seep into Africa and vice versa.
The global pandemic has been an additional accelerating force of existing fragilities. As a colleague described it to me, "For communities in conflict, COVID-19 is like the eighth child in my family – I have so many other worries."

Health systems, like those in Yemen, were already operating at less than 50 percent capacity. As countries shifted their focus to address COVID-19, other health issues were neglected – from childhood vaccinations to the treatment of chronic diseases and mental health services.
The three pieces of preventative advice – "wash your hands; keep your distance from others; stay at home" – was irreconcilable in the displacement camps and the prisons where the ICRC works, places where clean water is scarce, overcrowding a way of life and home a distant memory for the millions of long-term displaced.

As economic crises hit communities, those on the edges are pushed further behind. Discrimination and ostracization are daily realities for millions of people. Exclusion occurs on multiple levels:

  • People are locked out of economic participation, or education.
  • Some – survivors of sexual violence, people with disabilities – are shunned by society.
  • Others are excluded in the name of punishment – those accused of committing terrorist acts, detained without judicial process, those perceived to be affiliated with the enemy, including families of foreign fighters.

A desire for revenge may be understandable when years of conflict and atrocities have divided communities, but history shows that policies and practices that are driven by short-term considerations, that stigmatize parts of the population work against long-term stability.
A renewed partnership for respect
It is clear: we need to do things differently.

Our experience over decades tells us that a focus on security without a focus on the human dimension of conflict is in fact no security at all.
From the very beginning almost 160 years ago, the ICRC has been about much more than the delivery of emergency aid. Humanitarian assistance is necessary to help people survive, but not enough to break a vicious cycle: changing belligerents' behavior to prevent further violence and violations of norms and to bring normality back to societies is essential.

This is not wishful thinking. Policies and behaviors that accord with IHL and humanitarian action are practical ways to leave vicious cycles behind and take pathways to peace. Civilian populations must not become the hostages of political and security disagreements.
That's why I am proposing today a renewed and re-energized partnership of engagement with all the countries of the Region, through which we can work together to turn the tide.

What would such a partnership look like?
Neutral, independent, and impartial humanitarian

Neutral, independent, and impartial humanitarian work and its contribution to stability is a critical building block for such a partnership.
For centuries, societies have known that there must be limits to the violence that is inflicted on another side because of the lasting divisions that can be difficult to heal. International humanitarian law is built on long-standing customary norms and rules to ensure there is a minimum of humanity.

Even in the deadliest of conflicts the ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, sees how shared humanitarian objectives can help parties find common ground, whether through exchanges of prisoners, evacuation of the wounded, cross-line humanitarian activities, or the respectful exchange of human remains.

The ICRC is called on to facilitate these mutual trust-building measures thanks to our neutral, independent, and impartial role. In October, in what UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths described as an "airlift of hope", we facilitated the return of more than 1,000 people detained in relation to the conflict in Yemen. The release operation was the result of two years of talks and many years of trust-building with the parties in Yemen, building on the Stockholm Agreement of late 2018. There is hope that with enough confidence-building, measures such as this could pave the way for progress on a wider peace agreement.

Front-line humanitarian action can be a stabilizing factor to hold back development losses. For example, in Syria, as the war shifted to a new phase, we adopted a two-track approach – providing food and shelter to displaced populations while also working in more stable areas to repair water and electricity infrastructure so that people will have basic services when they return. We also ramped up our microeconomic initiatives to prepare the way for a return to regular economic life.

Let there be no doubt, professional humanitarian work extends far beyond delivering bags of food. There are critical skills involved in negotiating access and acceptance and navigating political and societal tensions. The principle of impartiality means we must look first to those who are most in need, most vulnerable, and hardest to reach.

To turn now to Iraq: where more than 1.3 million people are displaced, and more than 90 percent have been displaced for more than three years. Their future remains an unanswered question. Time is not on our side - the longer it takes for people to achieve a safe and dignified return, the deeper divisions are entrenched and more difficult they are to repair.
Many who have fled fighting are slowly returning – and in line with international law, this must only happen when nonrefoulement is assured. Others, stigmatized for being perceived as having been close to the enemy, are left in limbo. Their villages are but rubble; often the last on the list for reconstruction.

It is difficult to imagine former enemies living as neighbors... but we must ask ourselves: what can be done so that people, often women and children, have hopes for a future rather than wait to be molded into the fighters of tomorrow? Boys, without education, health, or a chance in life can – and have – grown up to become men with guns.
With approval from Iraqi authorities, the ICRC is taking steps to help groups of women and children return to their communities. The process is as important as the result. Through community mediation, we work with community leaders to help foster acceptance of their return. We help both the returnees and the existing community to rebuild and to set up microeconomic initiatives. This broad approach is vital for social repair: a small income can protect returnees from falling into destitution or homelessness that could lead to further ostracization. Our aim, always, is to reduce points of friction, in the absence of which, communities can begin to heal themselves.

The ICRC is also working hard across the region to find answers for families of missing people who are desperately searching for news. The issue of missing people haunts the region – and is one of the most critical for reconciliation. We estimate that it affects millions: our staff is overwhelmed by mothers asking for their sons, husbands searching for their wives.
It is an issue that can leave deep scars in communities, but it is also one where parties can reach mutual agreements on humanitarian grounds to share information or allow the return of remains.

Despite the clear contribution of humanitarians to alleviating suffering, laying the groundwork for stabilization, humanitarian work remains severely underfunded. This is compounded today as the COVID-19 pandemic sees some donor states reallocate funds to domestic issues. The truth is that this year, for ICRC's operations Iraq is underfunded; Afghanistan is underfunded.
These shortfalls come at a time when we see people's needs skyrocketing and economic crises looming.

New pathways for humanitarian action Conflict dynamics over the last few decades have severely destabilized whole regions, and it seems unlikely that humanitarian action can be financed in the future by transferring money from only a few states to humanitarian organizations.
While serious discussions on burden-sharing, enlarging the donor base, and strengthening local actors are necessary, we need a reimagined approach. Given the huge financial and innovative capacity of the region, new and more innovative forms of assisting people should start here:

 Today, it is better to help affected populations through income-generating activities than by making them
"beneficiaries", dependent on traditional aid.

In many places, it is better to replace aid delivered by trucks with cash transfers to those in need, thereby also preserving people's independence and agency.  It is more important to build on the potential of the digital economy to do needs assessments for people than to design humanitarian action as the low-tech and low-quality end of assistance: telemedicine can help reach remote areas, big data analysis allows for sharper assessment of needs, virtual training can teach soldiers how to comply with IHL in real combat situations; science enables us to deliver better orthotic and prosthetic services to those affected by violence and conflict. Creating new financial instruments based on impact philanthropy and impact investment can fill an important gap today, which will not be addressed by traditional forms of finance.

In all these areas, we have taken a leading role in the humanitarian sector over the past few years. Given the potential in the region, we hope to bring high-tech solutions to low-tech and unstable countries to achieve greater stability for individuals and whole communities.

Response of the international system:
The complexity of the issues I am speaking about requires a functioning international system: a system in which states, rather than making empty promises, would work together to agree the rules and practical steps forward.
We should also recognize that the future for consensus-building must be not only multilateral but also multi-stakeholder, with actors from across sectors coming together to address social issues, rather than to secure political wins.
We are seeing what new platforms can achieve, such as the COVAX alliance, which is bringing together actors from across sectors to work on equitable vaccine delivery.
New forms of partnerships in this region will be critical if we hope to end political stalemates both in the region and globally.
For over the last few decades, we have seen that what happens in the region has an impact on global affairs, and vice versa. From the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and controversial interpretations of the Geneva Conventions over occupation, use of force or terrorism, to the treatment of detainees, the use of chemical weapons or the especial cruelty of the fighting in Syria and Iraq – the interplay between regional and global issues is obvious.
It is also true on a more positive note: as recently as last year, the decades-old search for tens of thousands of people who went missing in the Iran–Iraq War and the Gulf War brought – under the leadership of Kuwait – a consensual resolution before the Security Council. Moreover, the resolution recognized IHL, as a key instrument for healing the wounds of war and making pathways to reconciliation.
Engaging with actors of influence
Across the Middle East, the ICRC works hard to build relations with all parties to armed conflicts and those who influence them. Our dialogue aims to secure respect for the laws protecting people in conflict and acceptance for neutral and independent humanitarian action. We also explore opportunities to act as a neutral intermediary and to build belligerents' trust.

The global focus on the Middle East and the Muslim world, in general, has led the ICRC to reach out regularly to academic and religious circles to better understand the compatibility of the rules governing war and the use of force with Islamic law. In partnership with the United Arab Emirate's Ministry of Defence, we are sharing best practices regarding the laws of military operations and decision-making process in combat and law enforcement operations.

To highlight another example: together with the UAE government, we plan to open a Centre for IHL training in Abu Dhabi, reflecting our wish to bring practical education and training to armed forces from the region and beyond. More can be done in many other places in the region.
Our lessons learned from working with more than 130 armed forces around the world bring together best practices for protecting and assisting civilians, are there to be discussed and incorporated into armed forces' training, doctrine, ground rules, and practice.

We have identified several key challenges critical for humanitarian action, in particular: how to deal with security and terrorism, how to engage with non-state armed groups, and how to carry out a humanitarian action in the context of partnered, proxy, or alliance warfare.
Support Relationships in Armed Conflict

Today, over a third of non-international armed conflicts involve coalitions of states and/or non-state armed groups. The ICRC has launched a global initiative to work with armed forces and other stakeholders to identify practical measures that will improve the protection of civilians and others not fighting in support relationships.

Through continued engagement and sharing of experiences with actors in such support relationships, the ICRC aims to facilitate an understanding of challenges faced and good practices to reduce the human cost of war. We will collect and decontextualize these lessons so that they could be usefully shared with others.

For instance, when it comes to the growing flow of arms in the region... some States supplying arms share in their confidential dialogue with the ICRC the ways they do everything reasonably in their power to ensure that the recipients of their weapons respect IHL.
For instance, by assessing whether their partners are likely to use the weapons to commit IHL violations or by incorporating IHL and other international standards into weapons training programs. At the same time, many other states have a lot to do in this area and the ICRC is ready to advise.

Non-State Armed Groups
The ICRC also strives to engage with non-state armed groups. The imperative is clear with the rising number of groups: in fact, more armed groups have emerged in the last seven years than in the previous seven decades. This means there is a significant population – tens of millions of people – living outside the reach of state services and in need of humanitarian aid and protection. The ICRC's dialogue with armed groups is therefore critical.

We engage with more armed groups than any other humanitarian organization in the world, both in terms of the number of groups and the extent of our interaction. In a recent study, we identified 614 armed groups of relevance to our operations around the world. Around half of these groups (296) are located in Africa, with 132 in the Middle East. The newly emerging armed groups are for the most part decentralized, with less top-down control, but they collaborate with one another and with states within broader strategic alliances. We follow as closely as possible these coalitions, the grievances, and narratives, trying to understand their organizational structure as well, to identify decision-makers and the levers of influence on their behavior.

Engaging with weapon bearers on all sides of a conflict does not confer any legitimacy on them. It simply means we are doing our utmost to ensure a minimum of humanity in conflict. And it works. For example: in 2018, after four years of patient work involving intensive consultation with weapon bearers, the ICRC team in Lebanon managed to persuade 27 armed groups active in the refugee camp of Ein el Helweh to sign commitments to protect health care, which resulted in better access for the refugees to treatment.

In other countries, our knowledge and engagement with armed groups are critical to negotiating access to populations in need, ensuring security for communities and our operations, preparing the ground for exchanges of detainees, and in the search for missing people or access to detention facilities.

Security and terrorism
The ICRC is increasingly involved in legal, policy, and operational dialogue on finding the acceptable balance between military and security necessities and ensuring people are properly protected under international humanitarian law. IHL does not pose an undue obstacle to state security. Rather, it offers a framework on dilemmas between humanity and military necessity. In this regard, the discourse on terrorism deserves a special mention. The ICRC condemns acts of terrorism, whether committed in or outside an armed conflict. Terrorism is anti-humanitarianism. It negates the basic principle of humanity, it goes against the underlying principles and core objectives of IHL. But in responding to terrorism, IHL strikes a balance between military necessity and considerations of humanity when pursuing a state's security interest.

IHL is there to protect civilian populations affected by terrorism. It requires parties to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and military and civilian objects; to take measures to spare civilians from the effects of hostilities; not to engage in torture, ill-treatment, or arbitrary detention; and to prevent disappearances and put loved ones back in contact. It also prevents the dehumanizing of the enemy.
Counter-terrorism laws, for that matter, adopted at the national, regional, and international level, can coexist with IHL and they complement each other, as long as these laws do not generate conflicts of norms and legal confusions, and do not criminalize or unduly restrict humanitarian action.

We realize that in practice there are challenges, which are present in many conflicts and not just in counter-terrorism situations – for instance, distinguishing between fighters and civilians when fighters are hiding among the civilian population. The ICRC has discussions with states around the world on these challenges and seeks to give as precise as possible advice and seeks as large as possible a consensus around how to handle some of the difficulties at the strategic, tactical, and operational level.

We try to be a pragmatic partner of the governments and armed forces, who are confronted with such challenges, rather than a rigid, prescriptive guide. It is through conversation between weapon bearers and the ICRC that best practices can be determined and better protection for people affected by conflict and violence can be found.


Dear colleagues, nearly 160 years ago, the ICRC was founded to make professional humanitarianism a force in the service of modern statehood. Instead of handouts for the poor, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement throughout its history have wanted to combine mitigating measures for victims with respect for norms, principles, and policies protecting civilians. This remains key to dealing with the complexities of modern, asymmetric, and protracted conflicts. But we need to build on the experiences of the past few decades and forge innovative responses: 

  • Putting human security at the center of our concerns and reconciling humanitarian, security, stability, and peace-building agendas.
  •  Engaging in quiet but robust dialogue with the armed actors of today's conflict in order to ensure better respect for laws and principles through practical and pragmatic cooperation.
  • Identifying humanitarian issues that can build minimal trust between the parties to break cycles of violence.
  • Striving for new forms of diverse partnerships to find a way through political stalemates.

Colleagues, when discussing the political, security, and strategic issues of concern to your countries, we urge you to keep human security as your focus – without it, we risk chronic instability and cycles of violence without end.

Thank you.

For more Info: 
Contact: Clare Cameron, Office of the President,
PRES., CGC - 03.12.2020 09:39