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Peter Maurer: Why the Red Cross talks to ‘terrorists’

The president of the Int. Red Cross discusses its mission and how to stay neutral in the face of armed conflict.

Providing aid to people in war zones has always been a challenging task. Humanitarian groups and organisations have to deal with difficult circumstances, violence, several governments and increasingly with non-state actors.

One such organisation is the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC). Its role is stipulated by the Geneva Conventions that dates back to 1864.

They are a set of rules that detail what is allowed and not allowed during warfare, and the conventions have expressly given the ICRC an important role to play: to assist people in war, to preserve their dignity and their lives.

But this role has come at a price. To fulfil its mission, the Red Cross has to work with states and actors no matter how brutal their actions are. So how do they do it? What makes the ICRC different from other humanitarian groups?

On Talk to Al Jazeera, we sit down with the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, to discuss its mission, the challenges it faces, and how to stay neutral in the face of armed conflict.

“We are very cautious [about criticising those who are fighting] because at the end of the day it’s the balance between having a possibility to dialogue, to access, and to change behaviour even in a small step … We consider this more important than speaking out, and that’s the whole principle of confidentiality. We visit detention facilities all over the world. If we would start to speak out about what we see in those detention facilities, we wouldn’t be there,” Maurer says. 

However, many of these rules have been systematically violated.

Confidentiality is not something we want to hide, but it's a protected space which is necessary to engage states ... so that they can change behaviour and that we can slowly nudge them into better respect of the international humanitarian role.... Confidentiality is a tool.

by Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC

During Syria’s civil war, people have witnessed the use of barrel bombs, suicide bombs, chemical weapons, executions, political prisoners and torture. 

“It is a great concern … that these conventions are repeatedly and systematically violated in conflict … These rules are violated at the present moment in a very serious way in many of the conflicts, not only in Syria. But also, let’s be very frank, they are an important guidance and we never talk about those instances where they are respected,” Maurer says. 

“The Geneva Conventions are an important framework to allow us to negotiate access to populations, to engage in a conversation on the conduct of hostilities … to negotiate access to detention facilities. It’s not falling from the sky as just an obvious thing, which falls into our lap, but it’s a framework which is an important guidance on how we can engage with states in order to respect those laws, and not only states but also non-state actors,” he adds.

ISIL, also known as ISIS, has been described as “one of the most dangerous terrorist groups” in history. The group has seized large areas in Syria and Iraq.

When asked about ISIL and whether the Red Cross was ready to approach this group and have a conversation, Maurer says: 

“ISIL is not a group which you can easily know who is part of, and has a telephone number to call, but we certainly reach out, and we try to reach out … to all those who carry weapons to find possibilities to access people in need.”

“The whole essence of the role of the ICRC as a guardian of the Geneva Conventions, is to talk to all parties to conflict and to engage with parties to the conflict so that they respect international humanitarian law. The fact that these laws are violated by parties of the conflict is not a reason for us not to talk … not to confer any legitimacy on belligerence but to do the utmost to ensure a minimum of humanity in conflict, and this needs engagement with all those who carry weapons, and who are engaged in conflicts. Now, this does not mean those who carry weapons and are engaged in conflict, including ISIL are ready to talk to us, but for the ICRC there is no principal opposition in a conflict situation to talk to all parties to the conflict …”

“Our objective is to relieve the suffering of people who suffer from the impact of warfare. So we have to reach them, and we have to talk to those who are in control of those people.”

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