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No. 2, January 1999
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© Copyright 1999  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.

Cosmopolis exclusive interview with Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC, late December 1999: 'In the long run, it is necessary to create a [UN] police or military intervention force'.

[added in November 2004: Jürg Bischof im Gespräch mit Cornelia Sommaruga. Diplomatie im Dienste der Menschlichkeit. Get the book from Amazon.de or citydisc Schweiz].

On December 29th, at his 67th birthday, after twelve and one-half years as President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Cornelio Sommaruga left office. With a budget of around one billion Swiss Francs (650 million dollars), this organisation is one of the heavyweights in the humanitarian domain. In an exclusive interview with Cosmopolis, the President of the ICRC explained the duties, relevance and future of the ICRC (for the original version of the inverview see our German edition).
 

Cosmopolis: Mister President, could you explain to our readers the difference between ICRC, the UNHCR and the NGOs?
 
Sommaruga: The ICRC is an institution under Swiss private law and has two objectives to fulfill. First, the signatory states of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 gave the ICRC a mandate to observe and monitor compliance to its conventions of international law. Second, the ICRC protects and helps victims of violent conflicts. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) also has an international mandate. It was founded on the Convention on Refugees adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1951 and therefore deals mainly with problems related to refugees, people who have crossed state borders. In contrast to the UNHCR, the ICRC deals more with displaced persons within state borders. Occasionally, the UNHCR and ICRC act together and in coordination, for instance in Bosnia-Hercegovina. On the other hand, Doctors Without Borders is an example of an NGO established under private law in several countries. They act mainly in the medical area and without a mandate given by the international community. Therefore, they do not have to seek prior approval of their actions by the governments involved as the ICRC does.
 
Cosmopolis: In the 20th century, NGOs and multinational corporations have become increasingly important. Furthermore, with the creation of the European Union, a supranational actor has entered the international scene. Nation-states have lost importance. How do all these changes affect the work of the ICRC?
 
Sommaruga: Above all, the ICRC is confronted with a change in the conduct of war. The classical military conflict between states has become the exception. Today, the question is how humanitarian organizations can work alongside the military. There must be no confusion between military troops and humanitarian organizations. Furthermore, several organisations (UN, ICRC, NGOs) are frequently working at the same place with objectives and actions that often overlap. Therefore, the coordination of humanitarian efforts has become important.
 
Cosmopolis: In 1901, the founder of the ICRC, Henry Dunant, won the first Nobel Peace Prize ever. The ICRC has won three Nobel Peace Prizes: during World War I (1917), World War II (1944) and for its 100th anniversary (1963). In recent years, howewer, the Nobel Prize Committee has honored other organizations: last year it rewarded the fight against landmines (in which the ICRC also played an important role) and this year's award went to Doctors Without Borders. Is there a danger of an unhealthy competition between humanitarian organizations for international recognition?
 
Sommaruga: These organizations are not in competition with the ICRC. There is too much to do and there is room for all of them. Only the competition for donations will become stiffer. More importantly, as already mentioned, ist the serious coordination of efforts in order to prevent overlap and duplication of efforts. No victims should be forgotten. Therefore, the UN Office Of The Humanitarian Coordinator has already been created.
 
Cosmopolis: Humanitarian aid has been a business for some time now. Do you see any dangers from this? Critics say that it only takes two people to found an NGO and ask for donations.
 
Sommaruga: Generally speaking, the NGOs do a good job. Of course, some of them lack the necessary experience to improvise successfully in regions of conflict. In that, the governments have a huge responsibility when distributing money for humanitarian aid. The ICRC recognized this problem long ago. Humanitarian aid must be based on clear ethical principles. Along those lines, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC and National Federations) have created a codex already signed by more than one hundred humanitarian organizations. However, there is still no monitoring of its application.
 
Cosmopolis: Under your presidency, has the ICRC adopted to the increased commercialization of humanitarian aid? Should the ICRC in the future employ athletes and movie stars as "ambassadors"?
 
Sommaruga: No. The ICRC does not favour this commercialisation. For reasons of discretion, it is neither possible nor desirable for the Red Cross to deliever sensational news on prisonners of war in order to get an echo in the media, for example. The ICRC can attract people's best by simply explaining what it does. Since 85 % of its budget comes from government donations (around 1/4 of it from the USA and 1/8 from Switzerland), we do inform governments extensively on our activities. In addition, states often have there own observers in regions of conflict. For that reason, they can easily evaluate the work of the ICRC.


Cornelio Sommaruga.
 

Cosmopolis: In 1988, the ICRC was forced out of Ethiopia. And when Iraq attacked Kuwait, the ICRC had no access to the war's victims. How should the ICRC develop in the future? Which have its achievements been under your presidency?
 
Sommaruga: The world changes quickly and constantly,as shown by developments of armements and conduct of war. The ICRC has to adapt to these challenges. It is now up to my successor, to make the necessary changes. The worldwide presence of the ICRC can hardly be improved. We work in 60 countries, including 28 in a state of war, with the approval of all governments and parties in the conflicts. We are even present in Eritrea, even though it has not signed the Conventions of Geneva. In addition, the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements support our efforts worldwide. However, it would be a positive step if private enterprises, especially multinationals, would offer more financial support for the activities of the ICRC. One of the achievements of the last years has been the agreement between the ICRC and the Swiss government that guarantees de jure the ICRC's independance from Switzerland.
 
Cosmopolis: In essence, the ICRC's actions are palliative,  combatting only the symptoms of conflicts. A task worthy of Sisyphus. How would the environment and structures have to change in order to prevent humanitarian catastrophies in the future?
 
Sommaruga: Through its existence and actions, the ICRC has also a preventive effect. When conflicts break out, it helps to relieve suffering. Furthermore, the ICRC is active in the education and sensibilisation of the youth and in the universities. The ICRC spreads information not only about international law, but also about human values. In addition, it reminds governments of their duties in this field. A short time ago, as the first president of the ICRC, I had the chance to address NATO's North Atlantic Council. The humanitarian domain must not be left only to humanitarian and neutral organizations. Governments especially have to care about their financial responsability. States are subjects of international law and are therefore primarily responsable for the respect of human conditions. Only thereafter follows the collective responsability of the signatory states of the Geneva Conventions.
 
Cosmopolis: How do you consider the legal developments in recent years regarding war crimes?
 
Sommaruga: The ICRC has worked in this direction for decades. The establishment of international war crimes tribunals is a positive step. Nevertheless, the ICRC has made it clear that its representatives will not present themselves as witnesses in court. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has approved this attitude. Going back to the international environment that is to change: poverty, hunger, water shortages and environmental problems are no fatality. The same goes for the proliferation of weapons, especially for small and light ones that end up in the hand of irresponsable people that have never been educated about their responsabilities. For sustained changes, a lever should be applied in these fields.
 
Cosmopolis: Conflicts are still on the daily agenda. Rwanda, Kosovo or Chechnya are just a few. Dictators or military regimes are not impressed by appeals to reason, resolutions or protest letters. Does the world not lack an international military intervention force whose mere existence would have a preventive effect?
 
Sommaruga: Yes. For years, the ICRC has been in support of actions in this direction - but of course, the ICRC cannot be in charge of such efforts. Recently, we supported the appeal by Maître Klarsfeld of August 12th. In the long run, it is necessary to create a police or military intervention force that would be prepared and trained in peacetime. It should intervene in the case of violations of humanitarian international law and human rights. A UN organization that could act independently from the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council, should be created. Already today, state sovereignty has its limits. The current UN General Secretary has also expressed similar views.
 
Cosmopolis: As with everything that happens on the level of international law, the creation of an independent intervention force depends on the will of the nation-states. As long as they are against it - no country likes to abandon power and privilege (such as veto power on the Security Council) - this will remain wishful thinking.

www.cosmopolis.ch
No. 2, January 1999
Deutsche Ausgabe  Archiv  Kunst  Film  Musik  Geschichte  Politik  Lebensart  Reisen
English edition  Archives  Art  Film  Music  History  Politics  Lifestyle  Travel

© Copyright 1999  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.