Interview with ICRC delegate Monique Nanchen
01-03-2006 Article, Côte Magazine Genève, by Fabienne Waldburger
The ICRC's 1,300 field delegates (expatriates included) are the last hope of people caught up in war. They interview war victims and prioritize their needs in reports which they submit to the authorities. Monique Nanchen, an ICRC delegate whose many past assignments include Colombia, Congo, Chechnya, southern Sudan and Côte d'Ivoire, recently passed through Geneva on her way from Jerusalem to her next posting in Beirut. She answered some questions about a job to which she is deeply committed.
This article was published by Côte-Magazine Genève and is reproduced here with the newspaper's kind permission.
What prompted you to become an ICRC delegate? I wanted to defend humanitarian values in a way that made sense to me. I chose the ICRC because of its well-defined scope of action and its serious a pproach to staff security. There was also the fact that the ICRC has a uniform mandate and applies it with great rigour. It acts on the basis of the Geneva Conventions, which gives it a high degree of credibility among the authorities. This is a legal framework to which I adhere and in which I believe. Working for the ICRC also seemed to be a logical way to build on my studies in international relations and satisfy my longing to travel and mix with people from other cultures.
Which assignment left the deepest impression on you?
My assignment in Colombia, without any doubt. The country felt very familiar to me, maybe because of the mentality there, which is similar to mine. I was exclusively engaged in field work and spent all my time with people who were simply struggling to survive. During my year in Colombia, I came to feel great empathy for the local population, perhaps more so than on other assignments.
What is the most difficult aspect of your work?
The civilians and prisoners with whom I've been in contact have high expectations – political ones in particular. I witnessed this in Palestine, for example. Unfortunately, though, while their expectations are political, we can only provide a humanitarian response. Some of the prisoners I visited thought we were there to free them, because they felt they were being arbitrarily detained. However, our mandate is limited to trying to improve their conditions of detention and keep them in touch with their families. Often that is not enough for them.
Practically speaking, what do you do in the field?
The way we implement our mandate to provide assistance and pr otection varies according to countries and needs. In poor countries that are ravaged by war, in addition to reminding the authorities of the need to respect the rights of civilians and prisoners, we deliver aid to the most destitute. We try to build up these countries'infrastructure – especially their medical services – and provide logistical support. In countries that are more developed, we focus mainly on promoting respect for people's rights and on visiting prisoners and monitoring their conditions of detention.
Do prisoners speak freely with you?
What they tell us is strictly confidential and never leaves the ICRC. We repeat our visits to make sure that no reprisals are taken against them. In the reports we submit to the authorities, we generally refrain from mentioning people by name and take the utmost care not to say anything that might harm them. This is one reason why the great majority of prisoners trust us. Visiting a prison is always a very emotional experience for me. I try to remain ignorant of the prisoners'past so that I won't be tempted to pass judgment. I find it very helpful to maintain direct eye contact when I listen to them talk. Sometimes that's all one can do, but I've noticed that it goes some way towards restoring their dignity.
Isn't being a delegate a tough job for a woman?
I've never felt that being a woman was a handicap in the field. However, it's true that I've never had to work in places like Afghanistan, where women are discriminated against. Some very religious prisoners prefer to speak with women through a male intermediary. In the beginning this can come as a surprise and be somewhat embarrassing or annoying. But there are other situations in which it can be an advantage to be a woman. When dealing with the military, for ex ample. They don't see women as opponents in a power struggle – something they would automatically do with a man. With women, they can step out of their military role, which makes for a better dialogue.
Have you ever been afraid?
No. However, I've become increasingly aware of danger over the years and maybe I've become even more cautious than before. But that's all. In any case, the ICRC is inflexible when it comes to security. I've never been caught in crossfire except once in Colombia, where people were shooting about 200 metres away from us. That's the only direct experience I've ever had of armed violence.
In your opinion, what qualities does a person need to be a delegate?
Adaptability, humility and flexibility are qualities that can be very helpful in the field. Empathy, self-reliance and openness of mind are important as well. It is vital to know how to listen and to be able to perform a wide variety of tasks. New delegates are full of illusions but they quickly come to see that their contribution is the sum of many small efforts. This is something one learns by working in the field.
Do you find it difficult to adjust when you come back between two assignments?
Less and less. However, my situation is rather unusual since my husband also works for the ICRC and now we are assigned to the same places. Obviously, this gives me an emotional stability that enables me to lead an almost normal life and makes it less of a brutal change to come back.
What perception do people have of the ICRC?
Nelson Mandela, who was regularly visited by the ICRC in his prison cell in South Africa, used to say that the ICRC's merit lay not only in the good it did, but also in the harm it was able to prevent. I think that is very much to the point.
ICRC neutrality is often badly perceived, it is true. And this negative perception is growing even stronger now, at a time when conflicts are becoming increasingly polarized. The people we visit ask us to choose sides and they can't understand it when we don't. But in the end, it is precisely because we abstain from taking political positions that our presence is tolerated almost everywhere in the world.