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"Being hard on yourself"

21-07-2005 Article, Facts

ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger talks about walking the knife-edge between silence and communication. Between pressure from the US Senate and the advantages for the ICRC of Swiss leadership.


 This interview by Andreas Bucher was first published in Switzerland's German language magazine, FACTS, and is published here with the magazine's kind permission.  



 FACTS: Mr Kellenberger, you have been in charge of the ICRC for five years. How do you cope?  

 Jakob Kellenberger : Certainly, one is permanently confronted with the negative aspects of our world. To be fair, that’s easier for the president than for a delegate who spends years working under difficult conditions in the field. But I do visit conflict zones fairly often, and a lot of what you see there is shocking and painful. On the other hand, you also see the difference we can make. And that makes it easier to digest what you experience in the field.



 FACTS: Even when there’s no lasting improvement in the conflict situation?  

 Kellenberger : That’s a basic problem. Just this morning, for instance, we were talking about the humanitarian consequences of the conflict in northern Uga nda. The situation there has scarcely improved for the last ten years as far as the civilian population is concerned. But we can’t afford only to act when there’s a reasonable probability of things improving for people over the next 20 years. We just don’t have that certainty. In the ICRC – and I think I can speak for most of our personnel – the feeling is: “I want to save lives and protect human dignity here and now.”

 FACTS: ICRC delegates can’t speak publicly about their experiences. What emotional safety-valve do they have?  

 Kellenberger : For those working in war zones it can indeed be very difficult to exercise self-control in the interests of the ICRC’s ability to act. This requires great discipline. I respect them greatly for that. But delegates can discuss their impressions with each other and they can compare them with previous experiences. And they can speak in confidence to specially trained ICRC doctors. Furthermore, delegates know that the principle of confidentiality is not an end in itself. It’s simply our most important means of ensuring access to the greatest number of people.

 FACTS: And that’s your highest principle?  

 Kellenberger : Access to every person in every conflict zone who needs protection or help, everywhere in the world, is our raison d’être . One thing is clear: if parties to a conflict see us leaking what we know to the outside world, the chances of our operating effectively will shrink dramatically. But like I say, confidentiality is not what it’s actually about. We reserve the right to go public in certain cases.

 FACTS: Under what circumstances?  

 Kellenberger : Four criteria must be fulfilled. Serious, repeated breaches of international humanitarian law must be occurring. We must be witnesses of these breaches ourselves, or we must know about them from absolutely reliable sources. Repeated approaches on our part must have had no effect and we must be convinced that going public is in the interests of the victims.

 FACTS: All of these conditions must be fulfilled simultaneously?  

 Kellenberger : Yes. That’s why it’s so difficult to take that kind of decision. Being consistent is anything but easy. You have to be hard on yourself.

 FACTS: Sometimes you just can’t afford to wait for the results of confidential approaches. The ICRC went public on Rwanda very quickly.  

 Kellenberger : The situation there was unambiguous. We hoped that a public appeal would stop the massacre. Unfortunately, the international community reacted too late.

 FACTS: Following this disappointment, did the ICRC deliberately hold back from making public appeals?  

 Kellenberger : No. I simply quoted that example because I’ve noticed that in general the effectiveness of public appeals is often wildly overestimated.

 FACTS: The media have no effect?  

 Kellenberger : No, it would be a mistake to underestimate the effect of public opinion. One of our biggest challenges is not to miss the right moment for going public. But generally speaking, the effect of clear language in confidential discussions is underestimated, and the effects of public statements are overestimated.

 FACTS: The first time you made a positive statement to the press was after the torture scandal in Abu Ghraib. You pointed out that your contacts with the authorities had been effective.  

 Kellenberger : That’s true. Strictly speaking, reporting on successful discussions is also a breach of confidentiality. After our Abu Ghraib report was leaked to the press – and not by the ICRC, I would add – there were two types of reaction, especially in the Arab world: people wondered why our delegates hadn’t said something earlier, and they began asking serious questions about our work. That was why I decided to stress that our visits had not been without effect. Having said which, I never implied that all our demands concerning Abu Ghraib had been met straight away.

 FACTS: The attacks in London have probably strengthened the advocates of the “ticking bomb” principle, that’s to say those who would allow the preventive use of torture to get information out of a terrorist.  

 Kellenberger : The ban on torture isn’t just an ICRC matter: it’s part of human rights law and international humanitarian law. These laws were written to establish a balance between national security and the protection of human dignity. We see no reason to change that. I scarcely need tell you what would happen if o ne were to start blurring the boundaries and scrap the ban on torture. What is clear is that regardless of what the law may say, crimes such as the London attacks contravene the most basic principles of humanity and should be punished accordingly.

 FACTS: Before it can visit prisoners or investigate accusations of torture, the ICRC has to know who’s being held. The US is possibly operating secret prison camps on board ships. There are press reports of hundreds of unregistered detainees.  

 Kellenberger : I can’t comment on such figures. But it is important that all prisoners be notified to us. We have four conditions for carrying out visits: we have to be able to visit all prisoners in a given location; we have to be able to speak to prisoners individually, with no third parties present; prisoners must be registered and a list of prisoners must be maintained and we must be able to repeat our visits as often as we deem appropriate.

 FACTS: You don’t answer questions regarding Saddam Hussein’s conditions of detention. So in general terms, If you encounter cases of abuse, who do you contact?  

Kellenberger: Dialogue starts with those immediately responsible, that’s to say the camp commander or prison governor, plus middle-ranking officials in the ministry concerned. During the following visit we see how effective these initial approaches have been. If there has been no change we go up the hierarchy, as far as we have to.

 FACTS: In the case of Guantánamo, the ICRC went all the way to the top. You’ve met President Bush this year, and Secretary of State Rice on two occasions.  

 Kellenberger : I can’t talk about the content of those discussions. But what I can say – and this isn’t just an empty political phrase – is that the quality of dialogue between the US government and the ICRC presidency has been high. One can talk to the Americans. Confidentiality is important to them, and I respect that. The US government appreciates the ICRC; they see us as efficient and credible. That doesn’t mean there are no differences of opinion, but we can communicate clearly, and our dialogue is not without effect.

 FACTS: Outside the government there’s less understanding. A Republican Senate committee has described the ICRC as un-American and criticized it for demanding prisoner of war status for the inmates of Guantánamo, thereby obstructing the “war on terror”.  

 Kellenberger : That accusation is groundless. What is important to me is this – although I’m not sure I’m always properly understood when I say it: even if the prisoners obtain prisoner-of-war status, they can and must be prosecuted if they have committed war crimes. Prisoner-of-war status doesn’t protect a person against being brought to justice for serious violations of international humanitarian law. The same applies to civilian internees. We have never demanded that all detainees in Guantánamo be accorded prisoner-of-war status. What we do insist on is that the process be applied that is laid down in the Third Geneva Convention for establishing the status of a prisoner.

 FACTS: Hardliners in the US Senate are calling for a change in the statutes of the ICRC to allow non-Swiss nationals to sit on your governing bodies.  

 Kellenberger : The fact that our governing bodies consist entirely of Swiss nationals is an accident of history, but it is of practical value. We are one of the largest humanitarian organizations operating in war zones, and we have to take decisions quickly. Political debate between representatives of various nationalities at management level could slow the decision-making process unnecessarily. Our delegates and other personnel are no longer exclusively Swiss – much to the ICRC’s advantage, because internationalization gives us access to a larger pool of qualified personnel. For instance, many of our logistics personnel come from France, because the study of logistics has a longer tradition there. And many medical personnel from the Nordic countries work for us, because they have the right to return to their jobs afterwards.

 FACTS: It so happens that the areas worst hit by the tsunami are also areas where civil wars are taking place. What effect has that had on the way this year’s ICRC budget has been distributed?  

 Kellenberger : After the floods, we rapidly decided to make an additional effort during the emergency phase. When we realised that there would be enough money for our projects, we asked donor countries to make additional funds available for Africa instead.

 FACTS: The ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières were the only two organizations that did tha t.

 Kellenberger : That’s right, and I’m glad we took this approach. About half our expenditure this year will be in Africa. In Darfur, for instance – currently our largest operation – we provided 475,000 people with food between January and June alone, especially in rural areas where access was dif ficult.

 FACTS: One sometimes hears the hope expressed that a natural disaster could bring warring parties back together again. Has that been your experience in Sri Lanka or in Aceh?  

 Kellenberger : The Indonesian government and the rebels are indeed close to resolving the Aceh conflict, but in Sri Lanka it’s still proving difficult to reach agreement on the distribution of humanitarian aid. It would be premature to say that these natural disasters were playing a decisive role in bringing peace.