Interview with Robert Mardini, Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Robert Mardini, new Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ©UN Photo/Manuel Elias
Posted on 1 May 2020
Categories: Focus on
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

Robert Mardini is, since 30 March 2020, the new ICRC Director-General. Born and raised in Lebanon and educated in Switzerland, he has worked extensively on the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. We interviewed him to know more about his vision of the ICRC and the challenges that the Red Cross faces.

You are Lebanese and an engineering graduate from EPFL in Lausanne. Why go into humanitarian work?

Early in my career I was working in engineering in Switzerland, a sophisticated world where implementation of projects takes a long time, when I learned that the ICRC was also active in water and sanitation engineering in armed conflict. I was attracted to the need to identify a critical problem and quickly design and implement a solution where it would have high impact versus staying in Switzerland and contributing to projects that would take years. I wanted to see the difference that ICRC’s work provides for people. This is the moment I connected my skillset as an engineer with my respect and love for the Red Cross family and the opportunity to make a tangible difference in a relatively short time frame.

“The ICRC and the UN pursue different objectives that are complementary. We need to connect and join forces in the best interest of civilians.”

You now have 22 years at the ICRC and until recently represented it at the UN in New York. Can the ICRC and UN work well together?

Not only are they possible but in today’s world they are necessary and critical if we want to leverage better results for people affected by conflict. No one organization can meet all the needs, so we need to work together in a more organic and seamless way. The ICRC and the UN pursue different objectives that are complementary.

The UN has a political mandate and the ICRC’s is purely humanitarian. We are and will remain the last mile organization speaking with all sides and crossing frontlines to help people in need. Our impartiality, independence and neutrality are more than slogans

At the same time it is critical to shrink the needs, which is possible with greater respect of the rules of war. The multilateral space is crucial to sensitize States on the importance of those rules and mobilize all sides to respect them. Given today’s polarized world and fragmentated conflicts, political solutions are short in supply, with a Security Council struggling to reach consensus in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and elsewhere. Our work is a combination of convincing parties to conflict to protect civilians and negotiating regular humanitarian access.

In short, we cannot operate in isolation. We need to connect and join forces in the best interest of civilians.

Robert Mardini addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in Iraq. ©UN PHOTO / ESKINDER DEBEBE

“We’re not here to say nice things, especially when civilians are in harm’s way, with shells and bombs disrupting lives and livelihoods.”

Robert Mardini

How does your organization fit into the international humanitarian landscape?

I think our role is as guardians of international humanitarian law and as an organization with the courage to speak truth to power, whoever that is, and whatever the circumstances. We maintain a very robust dialogue without being complacent and I think the fact that ICRC speaks with everyone across fault lines and political divides in an ever more polarized world is important.

It’s something that States need to accept and respect because this is our license to operate. We’re not here to say nice things, especially when civilians are in harm’s way, with shells and bombs disrupting lives and livelihoods.

We cannot stay mute and we will choose the best way to convey the message. Bilaterally, multilaterally or in the public sphere, our messaging should be principled and without any ambiguity. This is critical for the ICRC.

What is the difference between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation? Many people confuse them.

We’re members of the same family. The Red Cross and Red Cross Movement is the largest humanitarian network on the planet and to make it very simple,

ICRC operates in armed conflict and violence hand in hand with National Societies, while the Federation is more focused on natural disasters and supporting National Societies in particular in terms of capacity building and preparedness in times of peace.

And of course, we work hand in hand because very often armed conflict, natural disasters and climate change overlap and affect the same communities.

“A greater respect for international humanitarian law would reduce humanitarian needs and funds.”

Robert Mardini

Robert Mardini delivers Red Cross messages to displaced families in Iraq in 2018. Copyright : CICR.

It is often said that funding for humanitarian operations is not meeting demand. Given your budget of over 2 billion Swiss francs, is this also a challenge you have to face?

The ICRC has increased its response in recent years and the budget has increased, which is not a good sign because larger ICRC budgets mean that there is more suffering and less of a political consensus to end conflict.

So before talking about budget the best thing is to ensure greater respect for international humanitarian law, because if this happens it would reduce humanitarian needs and funds. Meanwhile, the ICRC needs more financial resources to support the needs in armed conflict and violence.

There is a trend that humanitarian funding is plateauing for many organization, and the ICRC is not immune to this, so the message is please provide more support for ICRC’s operations so we can assist the most vulnerable in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.

As DG of the ICRC, how do you plan to improve relations with your staff?

Staff well-being and duty of care is at the very core of my priorities, and I’m eager to have the opportunity to listen and better understand the concerns, ideas and proposals of our diverse global workforce.

I think there is so much more we can do to achieve inclusion, and this will be high on the directorate’s agenda as I step into my new role.

I am aware over the past years there has been necessary transformations, and this has created, perhaps, fatigue at a time when colleagues in the field and at HQ have been mobilized to respond to the humanitarian needs. I acknowledge this fatigue and it makes me even more eager to ensure we are more intentional about areas of deceleration but also areas of acceleration to keep our relevance while making sure that staff well-being remains center stage.

You’re fluent in English and French, but also Arabic. Would you consider this an asset in your work?

It’s clear that language skills are a means to develop better personal relationships and to build trust with interlocutors, including those who are not convinced by the mandate of the ICRC.

Additionally, having an Arabic speaker as Director-General is a signal from the ICRC that all echelons of the organization are diversifying, but of course it all comes down to how we can better leverage this diversity for people caught up in armed conflict.

* Prisca Chaoui is Executive Secretary of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council. Prisca Chaoui est Secrétaire exécutive du conseil de coordination du personnel de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève (ONUG).