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ICRC - Humanitarian envoy to a troubled world
January 5, 2015, 9:14 am

If you want a first-hand account on some of the major conflicts and crises that have plagued the world in the last thirty-five years or so, all you need to do is talk to Gérard Peytrignet, Head of the Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in Kuwait. This is what The Times Kuwait had the privilege of doing when it was recently given an exclusive interview with this humanitarian envoy.

As he prepares to retire after three and a half decades of dedicated service with the ICRC and return to his native Switzerland, Mr. Peytrignet graciously spent over an hour of his valuable time talking of a career spent in conflict-ridden places around the globe. However, even after retirement, his valuable experience, in-depth knowledge and astute skills in crisis and conflict management will still be available, as he is expected to undertake shorter missions or carry out consultancies on behalf of the ICRC or other humanitarian organizations in trouble-spots around the world.

For a man who has been in the middle of so many historic historical events that have shaped and continue to shape the global geopolitical landscape, Mr. Peytrignet comes across as a very modest person. His reticence has probably as much to do with the uncharacteristic nature of his work, which calls for often discreet ‘behind-the-scenes’ negotiations, and has to do with the need of the ICRC to remain strictly neutral, impartial and independent in conflicts, and to appear so, a cornerstone of the organization’s principles of action which is needed to obtain, and retain the confidence of all parties. ICRC delegates are diplomats, but of a different sort, ‘humanitarian diplomacy’, at the service of the ideal of humanity in war upon which the organization is based.   

Nevertheless, in his interview with us, Mr. Peytrignet spoke candidly about the many significant events that had fashioned world history in recent decades. He told us about wars, military coups d’état and counter-coups, and other types of crisis, and the repercussions of these events that left hundreds of thousands dead, wounded, detained or displaced and homeless around world. Many more were maimed, both physically and psychologically long after the guns had fallen silent.

The unassuming nature of the envoy belies the significant role that he, and the organization that he represents, has played in assuaging the pain and suffering of millions of people caught up in global conflicts and crises. People held, rightfully or wrongfully, against their will have trusted the ICRC and its representatives to represent and speak on their behalf; prisoners of war and their families have depended on the organization to regain contact and communicate with each other, and tens of thousands stranded in conflict-afflicted zones around the world have relied on the ICRC to provide them with succor and vestiges of hope.

Born in Geneva, close to the ICRC headquarters there, he remembered how, as a youth, often passing by the international organization he had wished to able to join this organization one day. “After graduation, my fascination with different cultures and languages, as well as an abiding interest in international relations, led me to apply for a job with the ICRC. When I was invited to join the organization in 1980, my original intention was to serve humanity for a few years and then take up employment elsewhere. I never thought I would end up actually making my whole career with the ICRC, the first years as field delegate and then successively heading important actions around the word, for over 25 years.” 

“After initial training, I was sent to Zambia to take care of refugees from the 15-year Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) civil-war that had pitted the White-led government forces against the Black Nationalist alliance of ZAPU and ZANU parties, as well as the new refugees streaming in from post-independence violence in that country.

From Zambia in Africa, I was then sent to South America, a continent which in the 1970 and 80s was a hot-bed for revolutions and coups that often led to violent regime changes. With my fluency in the Spanish language, I then was assigned for a significant portion of my career in South and Central America. My first posting was to Bolivia, where back-to-back military coups had sent many to remote and often secret prisons around the country. The ICRC was often the only contact that these prisoners had with their distraught families back home.

My next posting was to the Central American Republic of Nicaragua, where the Sandinista Revolution had just overthrown the dictatorial government of Anastasio Somoza, and was trying to build a new society; the country was then violently opposed by Contra rebels, in a typical ‘Cold War conflict’. Apart from attending the needs of thousands of prisoners of the former regime, the ICRC was also attempting to bring relief to those affected by the fighting.

From Nicaragua I then went on to Colombia which was in the midst of a low-intensity conflict between government forces, left-wing guerilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries allied to the illegal cocaine trade. Three major events marked my three years stay in Colombia.

The first was happily meeting and then marrying the woman who has been my life-partner since then; she was working with the Colombian Red Cross and we shared common views and held similar ideas on humanitarian issues that continue to bond us.

Two other major events occurred within a span of a week of each other in November 1985; the first was siege of the Palace of Justice by the M19 guerilla group. The subsequent rescue operations resulted in the death of over 100, including prominent judges, civilians and the rebels. The second was the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz volcano that led to mudslides which buried the entire town of Armero and surrounding places killing over 25,000 people instantly. The death and devastation resulting from these two man-made and natural disasters showed me the strength and resilience of the people of Colombia, who have since then worked together to surmount the tragedies and tried to build a better future together.

While in Colombia, I also did a stint in Grenada, off the north-east coast of South America in the Caribbean, during a tumultuous period in that island’s history. The armed intervention on the island in 1983 by a combined force of several Caribbean nations and led by the United States, had resulted in the overthrow of the Socialist government in power then. The ICRC was involved in repatriating hundreds of Cuban soldiers and civilians back to Cuba and I still remember our plane landing in Havana, with Fidel Castro being present in person to thank the ICRC and to welcome back the repatriated soldiers.

I then left South America for a while and headed once again to Africa, this time to Angola, which was embroiled in a long and protracted civil war that had begun immediately after the country’s independence in 1975. The violent tussle for control among MPLA, UNITA and FNLA, the three nationalist parties involved in the country’s independence, was also a frontline for the Cold War adversaries seeking their own dominance in the area. At that time, war was raging inside the country between the governmental troops and UNITA rebels, each one supported by foreign troops and means. 

The ICRC was actually feeding and bringing medical aid to a high number of residents and displaced. We had to operate with small planes and land on savanna-type strips, because of the threat of anti-personal landmines that had been planted across the country by the belligerents. Scores of village dwellers were rushing to the plane to greet us and line up to receive the much needed relief. I would like to take a moment here to pay respect to several colleagues who back then perished in the action when their plane was downed by enemy fire.    

From Angola I once again returned to Peru in South America which was then ensnared in economic turbulences and social tensions that gave rise to an insurgency led by the Shining Path and MRTA rebels. The response of the armed forces and atrocities committed by all sides during the conflict wreaked havoc across the country for many years. The ICRC was also visiting the prisoners across the country, from desert islands to the jungles and the Andes Mountains. My daughter was born back then, in Lima.

After Peru, I was assigned to neighboring Chile, which was then just beginning to recover from military regime of General Augusto Pinochet. When I arrived the country had already begun the slow transition to a democratic setup but memories of disappearances, executions and extra-judicial killings that occurred during the past years still haunted the psyche of the country. My son was born during this period, in Santiago de Chile.

From Chile, and thanks to my fluency in Portuguese language, I was then assigned to Brazil and worked for four years, opening our regional office there, mainly on communicating and strengthening concepts of crisis management, peaceful conflict resolutions and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). I also had the opportunity to act during a short international conflict that took place between Peru and Ecuador.

In 1995, it was a total change of scenery for me when I was posted to Sri Lanka, where a quarter century of civil war had led to the death of over 100,000 people and caused significant suffering to the population, environment and economy of the country. I arrived in the island nation following the outbreak of yet another violent confrontation between the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE and the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was another difficult assignment as both the government forces and the separatist militants were accused of systematic acts of human rights abuses.

Following the capture of Jaffna by government troops, hundreds of thousands of civilians along with LTTE rebels fled towards Vanni in the interior of Jaffna, giving rise to a major refugee crisis. The ICRC had to use ships and other vessels to transport food, medicine and other humanitarian aid to refugees stranded on the Jaffna Peninsula.
In many of these conflicts, we happened to be criticized by both warring factions for supporting the opposite side. When you come under criticism by both sides in a conflict, you actually know you must be doing something right.

I then returned to Geneva and worked for a while in our headquarters before once again moving to South America where I headed our regional office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, covering five countries in the area. It was a relatively peaceful period with our mission mainly confined to developing conflict-prevention mechanisms and communicating the norms of IHL through government bodies and NGO’s. We were also involved in tracing the whereabouts of people who had gone missing during decades of dictatorships in the region, as well as working on the humanitarian consequences of the conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas islands in 1982. Some years after the war, I actually visited the place, together with the families of the Argentinean soldiers who fell during the combats and were buried there, and this was an extraordinarily moving experience.

From 2004 to 2009 I was assigned to Egypt, where the ICRC was cooperating and collaborating with the Arab League in promoting humanitarian values and introducing IHL into their laws. It was my first posting to the Arab world and introduced me to the remarkable Arab culture and language. From Egypt, I then went to Ethiopia to represent the ICRC at the African Union (AU). In numerous conferences and meetings with representatives of AU-affiliated countries we engaged in promoting the work of the ICRC and in particular encouraging respect for humanitarian laws in conflict-ridden zones, including among AU troops engaged in the Somalia conflict.

I arrived in Kuwait in 2010 as head of the regional office covering all six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Kuwait has extended the utmost cooperation and support to all activities of the ICRC and our office has been granted the status of a diplomatic mission here.  The ICRC has been operational in Kuwait since 1991, helping in searching for missing persons, exhuming of suspected burial sites, facilitating contacts between prisoners and their families and leading the work of the Tripartite Commission formed to bring closure to events related to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

In recent years, the ICRC has been engaged in promoting the humanitarian values of the ICRC in all the GCC states and encouraging enshrining the concepts of IHL into their legal norms. We have been conducting seminars and training sessions for the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, armed forces, diplomats, the national Red Crescent Societies and other NGOs involved in humanitarian activities, encouraging them in conflict resolution and crisis management techniques. Our focus has always been on upholding the human rights and dignity of every individual and providing humanitarian assistance wherever needed.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Kuwait government, the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society and local Charities and NGOs who have over the years done exemplary work in providing humanitarian aid to countries afflicted by conflicts and crises around the world. We at the ICRC feel extremely pleased that this magnanimity and generosity was recognized by the international community, with the United Nations honoring His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah with the title of ‘A Humanitarian Leader’ and conferring on the State of Kuwait the distinction of being an ‘International Humanitarian Center’.   


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