Cosmopolis exclusive interview with Cornelio
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Cosmopolis: In essence, the ICRC's actions are
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
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.