Peter Maurer on GTMO, Afghanistan & contagious crises

Mr Maurer (pictured center) walks outside the US Capitol Building with colleagues from ICRC headquarters in Geneva and the ICRC's regional delegation in DC on April 9, 2014. ICRC / A Nelson

Mr Maurer (pictured center) walks outside the US Capitol Building with colleagues from ICRC headquarters in Geneva and the ICRC's regional delegation in DC on April 9, 2014. ICRC / A Nelson

The ICRC's president, Peter Maurer, wrapped up his annual visit to Washington DC on Friday, where he met officials from the Obama administration, the leadership of the American Red Cross, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

Read the press release He also took part in a top-level USAID-organized meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and neighboring countries. Before heading back to Switzerland on Friday, he sat down with Intercross to talk about how his trip went.

Intercross: This was your second visit to Washington since taking over as ICRC President. How did your meetings go?

It was a very productive visit. I had the chance to meet officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the Departments of State and Justice, the CIA, and National Intelligence, as well as several members of Congress. Generally speaking, we have a very substantive, constructive, and frank dialogue with the US authorities on a variety of issues ranging from detention and the conduct of hostilities, to the changing nature of warfare and the use of new types of weapons. That's extremely important given the United States' role and prominence on the world stage. Sometimes, you take two steps forward and one step back on some issues but the essential thing is to keep making progress.

Intercross: Compared to your first visit in 2013, how has your discourse on Guantanamo changed?

The situation at Guantanamo has changed quite a bit since my last visit, which took place at the height of a mass hunger strike, involving more than 100 detainees, many of whom were trying to convey their deep frustration with a serious lack of progress on issues like transfers and the periodic review of their reasons for being detained.

Since then, the number of hunger strikers has dropped significantly, we've seen the long overdue start of the Periodic Review Board process, a dozen transfers have taken place, the majority of detainees now live in a communal set-up, and the Obama administration has appointed two Special Envoys at the Departments of State and Defense to work towards closing the facility.

Despite these improvements, however, I continue to have serious humanitarian concerns regarding Guantanamo and I urged both members of Congress and the Obama administration to find a way to end the deadlock over ongoing legal and policy issues, including the need for greater clarity for those detainees who don't know how long they will continue to be held. I also pressed them to accelerate and facilitate transferring out those detainees who have been cleared for transfer, and I stressed the importance of enabling all of the detainees to be in contact with their families more frequently. 

What other issues did you broach with officials?

I raised my concerns regarding the future in Afghanistan. US and international troops are due to withdraw from the country by the end of the year and I'm worried about how ordinary Afghans will be affected by the transition. 

Let's not forget that the withdrawal is just the latest chapter in a history of insecurity and conflict that has lasted for more than three decades. From an ICRC perspective, we're already seeing an escalation of violence. Understanding the dynamics of the many-layered and localized struggles for power that continue to emerge is one of our biggest preoccupations. We've also seen a disconcerting rise in civilian casualties over the past year and a proliferation of attacks against health facilities, personnel, and transport used for medical purposes. 

I'm also worried about the acceptance, security, and safety of Red Cross and Red Crescent workers in Afghanistan and elsewhere, like Syria and the Central African Republic.

Intercross: You've visited both countries, along with Iraq and South Sudan, in recent months. What are some of the observations about those contexts that you shared while in DC?

I’m very disturbed by the contagious effect that these crises are having on surrounding regions, from the well-known burden that Syria’s refugees are putting on neighbouring nations to the less-talked-about humanitarian disasters that are spilling over Africa’s borders. 

For example, we’re starting to see the situation in CAR take a heavy toll on Chad and Cameroon. The same can be said of the crisis in Mali that is having an impact in Niger and northern Nigeria. This is a worrisome trend, and in the same way that humanitarian needs can spill-over borders, so can armed violence and I'm concerned that these regions are turning into powder kegs that could ignite into more widespread conflicts.