Humanitarian Ethics and the Red Cross, with Hugo Slim

December 13, 2017

ICRC and the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Faryab Province, Afghanistan, May 2006. CREDIT: ICRC/Marcel Stoessel (CC)

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am having the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Hugo Slim. He is head of policy and humanitarian diplomacy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. He is also the author of a very interesting book, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster.

Hugo, great to have you here in New York.

HUGO SLIM: Thank you very much. Great pleasure to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: Just for our listeners, a little background. As head of policy and humanitarian diplomacy for the Red Cross, what does that type of job entail, before we talk about humanitarian ethics itself?

HUGO SLIM: As some of you may know, the International Committee of the Red Cross is an organization that is about 153 years old, and we are the guardians of the Geneva Conventions in war. We also work in many countries around the world on humanitarian action to protect and assist the civilian population, prisoners, the wounded, as well as encourage states and other warring parties to live up to their responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions.

So we do not just do action on the ground, we have to do a lot of policy-influencing and diplomacy as well. My role is to lead a part of our organization which is working with states every day here at the United Nations in New York, in the big capitals of the world—Moscow, Beijing, China, London, Jakarta, Addis Ababa. We have to constantly engage with states and encourage them to respect the Geneva Conventions, and also ensure that we have access to populations in need.

DEVIN STEWART: When you talk about humanitarian ethics and humanitarian action in general, you are therefore speaking not only as a practitioner but also as a scholar and an expert. It is great to have your perspective here today.

Give us a sense of what humanitarian action is, to begin with. It has been around since the late 1800s, is my understanding. What is the brief history?

HUGO SLIM: Humanitarian action has been around probably for as long as humans have been around, and certainly for as long as the time since the first human helped another in trouble or nursed a wounded person after a battle, etc., so the ethics of humanitarian action probably go back millennia and millennia.

But the modern form of humanitarian action, which has become part of diplomacy itself, was really started in the 19th century, around 1859, when a Swiss businessman called Henry Dunant found himself on a battlefield and realized that the wounded were not being protected and that they should be, and started a movement for humanitarian action and humanitarian law, which produced the International Committee of the Red Cross, a neutral, impartial, independent organization to protect and assist people in armed conflict, and produced the Geneva Conventions as the rules governing the conduct of armed conflict.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say "humanitarian ethics," what are those ethics? Let's look inside the box here. What is inside there?

HUGO SLIM: So we open the little box, and inside the box is the law. The Geneva Conventions are built on a certain ethics themselves. We might look at several principles that are in the law.

The first one is humanity, that, wherever possible, even war should have an element of humanity in it. There is a difficult tension always in war and the Geneva Conventions between military necessity, the right of a state to try to win a war, and the balance of humanity, that in winning you must be as humane as possible in the way you treat your enemy. So that is the first one.

DEVIN STEWART: So it is a sort of a humanism, it is humanity?

HUGO SLIM: It is humanity. It is a principle of compassion, of respect, and it is based on distinction as well.

DEVIN STEWART: Can I just ask, where does that come from? What sort of tradition does that come from?

HUGO SLIM: I think it comes from a universal tradition. I would say that the principle of humanity, and humanity in war even, is a global ethic. We can trace it through human history, if we look at ancient religious texts and the Bible and the Quran, and we can see it in many Eastern scriptures as well. We can see there are limits set to war, ethical limits to war. Even when we are at our worst as human beings, we must somehow try to respect each other and put limits to our violence. So that is an ancient and global ethic.

DEVIN STEWART: And when you say "global ethic," you mean it is everywhere, all around the world?

HUGO SLIM: We find it everywhere. We would say it is a universal ethical instinct, and we can find universal ethical norms across the world. Now, the challenge and the tragedy is that, although we often recognize those norms, in the heat of war we often abandon those norms.

DEVIN STEWART: I interrupted you. What else?

HUGO SLIM: The second principle in the Geneva Conventions, therefore, is the principle of distinction. That asks us to make a clear distinction between combatants and noncombatants, between military forces and civilian population, between those who are actively fighting and those who are now hors de combat, which means out of the fight because they are wounded or surrendered or imprisoned. So, a principle of distinction: you cannot just kill everyone and hurt everyone.

And then there is an important principle of proportionality, and that says that you are limited in the force and the weapons you can use.

DEVIN STEWART: So this is a third one, proportionality?

HUGO SLIM: Yes, that is the third one. You have to fight in proportion to the threat posed against you. So, if you are being attacked from a couple of windows in a particular house in an urban area, you would be completely wrong to bring in fighter jets and blow up the whole street.

DEVIN STEWART: But doesn't that happen?

HUGO SLIM: I am afraid it does happen, because breaches in international humanitarian law happen.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there any other principles besides those three?

HUGO SLIM: In the law, those three. When we then create the practice of humanitarian action, when organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross or the Red Crescent or Médecins Sans Frontières, or anyone who wants to deliver humanitarian action, it was then agreed in 1965 by the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement that there are four core principles of humanitarian action.

The first one is humanity, which says that we only ever act in the pursuit of the human person. So, in ethical terms, we have a teleology of person, not a teleology of politics.

DEVIN STEWART: That sounds very sophisticated, the teleology of person. That means the end goal, right?

HUGO SLIM: Yes. The goal of any humanitarian action is simply the protection and assistance of the human person, their humanity, the protection of life, health, and respect for the human person. That is the principle of humanity. If you ask any Red Cross or Red Crescent worker around the world, "What are you doing?" they should only ever answer one thing: "We are trying hard to protect and assist individual human beings who are in need. We have no other goal."

The second principle is impartiality. Impartiality then says we only work and look to make distinctions between people on the basis of their needs. So we are blind to distinctions of creed, race, religion, color, politics, etc. We are not going to get involved in judgments and discrimination on those terms, we will only respond on the basis of people's needs. That means a principle of we will work with everyone everywhere.

The third principle is neutrality. When we are doing humanitarian action, we must commit to neutrality as the International Committee of the Red Cross and as the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement. This means that in order to enjoy the confidence and trust of all those warring parties in a fight, we have to say, "We have no part in your fight, we take no sides in your fight." That means we will not create any unfair advantage in the way we give aid that may bias one side over the other, and we will play no part in the ideological dispute of your conflict.

So neutrality, when it works best, means that people trust us to cross the lines of conflict, to be fair.

DEVIN STEWART: That sounds very difficult.

HUGO SLIM: It is very, very difficult.

DEVIN STEWART: How often does the principle of neutrality come into question?

HUGO SLIM: All the time. I think in two ways.

Many people who are fighting a war often want to limit the amount of humanitarian aid and support going to their enemies. They have become brutal, determined. They feel they are fighting an existential fight for the survival of their society or community, so they do not want to help the enemy very often. So to then persuade them that you should be allowed in to help is a problem.

But then, people also find it hard to believe that people are neutral. They become very suspicious if they think there is a chance that you are helping their enemy in any way. So, convincing people of neutrality is a 24/7 job for the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have to constantly reassure people.

DEVIN STEWART: At the Red Cross, given your role as head of humanitarian diplomacy, are you one of the people who is in charge of convincing people of your neutrality?

HUGO SLIM: Certainly. It is my job in a place like New York when we are in the United Nations, if we are sitting in our permanent observer status at the United Nations, at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), or we are observing the UN Security Council, or we are talking to states about different armed conflicts and what is happening and the conduct of hostilities, absolutely, I have to prove in my conduct that I am absolutely neutral and that I am only thinking of the law and of protecting and assisting people in need.

DEVIN STEWART: You talk about other principles in your book. You mention stewardship as well as dignity. Are those other principles?

HUGO SLIM: If we take it chronologically, once you are finding that you have access, that people trust your neutrality and they believe you are impartial, you end up, as we do in many parts of the world, working with communities in need, doing water, food, health services, looking for missing people—all sorts of activities. To do that well over a period of months and years requires a certain way of working with people. Therefore, there are principles of how you work with people, and dignity is an important one. If you are going to do food with people, you have to do it in a dignified way. You do not just chuck it off the back of a truck and let them all fight for it.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

And how about stewardship, one of my favorites as a Stewart?

HUGO SLIM: It is a very important word. Basically, in the modern jargon of the day, that is to do with accountability and responsibility, and if people give you money, you must show that you have used it well and wisely and fairly and you have used it for the purposes you said you would use it.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely.

Before we get into some of the more ethical challenges that you face, what would say are the humanitarian crises that you are most focused on these days?

HUGO SLIM: Well, very tragically, of course, we are very focused in the Middle East. In a tragic way, I always feel that the Middle East is almost going through a similar experience to what Europe went through in the middle of the 20th century: years of war and terrible conflicts which we experienced in Europe and which now seem to be a challenge for the Middle East. So we are heavily engaged in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, places you would expect us to be.

If I was to talk regionally, our second biggest region would also be the terrible conflicts in West Africa around the Lake Chad Basin, so the conflicts in Nigeria, Northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and then across into Mali and places like this. So those two areas.

And, of course, I am afraid the Democratic Republic of Congo as well is again seriously affected by armed conflict, and South Sudan.

DEVIN STEWART: Also in your book you talk about something that you do not often see in ethics—sometimes you do, sometimes you don't—and that is emotions. What is the role of an emotion to be an ethical humanitarian?

HUGO SLIM: Well, the challenge in humanitarian work is we are asking a lot of people—we have 15,000 people around the world in the International Committee of the Red Cross. Most of those are Somalis, South Sudanese, Syrians, whatever, people working in their own conflicts, and being incredibly courageous and having to make very difficult decisions. Is it a good idea to travel today or is it too dangerous? How do I deal with a group of people when I do not have enough food for them all but they need it? How do I make these decisions? If I am dealing with a government or an armed group, what is acceptable to be close to them and work with them and what becomes more like complicity?

These are really difficult questions, and what I encourage in the book is that reason is an important part of that. We can work out ethical answers to a certain degree. But I also agree with David Hume, a great Scotsman, that we must trust our emotions and that often it is our emotions that give us a moral prompt first, and we should listen to that.

DEVIN STEWART: A prompt as in a question?

HUGO SLIM: If it feels the right thing to do or if it feels wrong, we should listen to that.

DEVIN STEWART: I see.

HUGO SLIM: Because often our emotions are our first moral instinct, and then we have to work out with our reason what our feelings are telling us.

So I just felt very strongly in the book that—like a lot of people these days, we talk of an "affective revolution" in ethics, in philosophy, and in social science, as you know, a resurgence of respect for feelings and not just the brain and reason. I think it is very important that we encourage people to think they will not necessarily find a perfect rational calculation that will deliver them the ethical answer, they should trust their emotions, too.

DEVIN STEWART: This type of advice, or a framework if you will, guidelines, that you are articulating right now, how do you get this message to the thousands of people who are working in the field that you mentioned?

HUGO SLIM: In the International Committee of the Red Cross we take training incredibly seriously. We joke: When you join, you do what is called a two-week integration course, but most people call it an indoctrination course. It is really teaching you to be humane, to be impartial, to be neutral, to be independent.

We can also really focus on the ethics there, and we can do it in training, and we can do it by having an ethical culture as an organization. So, even down at a checkpoint, down at a small operation in a difficult part of a country, we constantly stop and ask: "Are we doing the right thing? Are we being principled? Are we being neutral? How far are we being impartial? What is the right thing to do with these people, with this situation?"

DEVIN STEWART: How do you avoid helping bad regimes?

HUGO SLIM: That is the challenge, the so-called complicity challenge or the legitimacy challenge, that if you work in partnership with a regime that is also violating international humanitarian law, are you complicit with it, are you giving it legitimacy?

For the ICRC, we use our neutrality in a very determined way. We challenge states very directly about their conduct in hostilities. We remind them very firmly of their responsibilities. So when we work with an armed group or a government, we work with their authorities, and we are always reminding them of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law.

We can always be manipulated in certain ways by governments and armed groups who say: "No, you can't go there, you must go there."

But we will negotiate. We will say: "We need to work out where the needs are. We want to make those judgments," and we will negotiate access according to our principles, according to the law.

DEVIN STEWART: How about this very challenging question about—and I think it is in one of the descriptions of your book—that humanitarian aid acts as a strange incentive for regimes to be violent or abusive because they know that the aid community will come in and just clean things up?

HUGO SLIM: It is interesting. I am not sure if it acts—it possibly acts as an incentive.

DEVIN STEWART: It is a moral hazard, I guess?

HUGO SLIM: Yes, it is a huge moral hazard. I think there is no doubt that in many ways the modern movement of humanitarian action, which is about $28 billion worth of humanitarian aid this year for about 130 million people in need, is like a sort of emerging social welfare safety net. I think at one level that is a wonderful thing, because if you look back at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, if a state decided to ethnically cleanse people or do a massive population transfer, those people were just pushed out into a desert, into a hard place. There was no one to arrive and provide medical services, provide food, and whatever. So that safety net is important.

But I think you are right. There is no doubt that the existence of that safety net changes the calculation of some states and armed groups, that they may take action knowing that that population will not die and starve to death totally because the humanitarian system will come and protect them.

DEVIN STEWART: A perverse incentive?

HUGO SLIM: It is a perverse incentive, and it is a moral problem, but actually in a way it is not our moral problem.

DEVIN STEWART: Right, it is theirs.

HUGO SLIM: It is the people who are still making bad decisions, bad moral judgments, by violating international humanitarian law or human rights law. The responsibility lies there.

We have this in the welfare state, in welfarist countries as well.

DEVIN STEWART: How about another tough question for you, Hugo: Corruption? From afar you are picturing foreigners coming into another place with supplies and money and technology and other things. The question is always: Where does this stuff go, who gets the benefit? How do you avoid graft in your operations?

HUGO SLIM: The honest answer is that you cannot always avoid graft, and you cannot control everything, particularly in the confusing context of an armed conflict where you cannot control everything and there is serious militarized power around the place. Sometimes you have to accept some level of graft, if you like, because the humanitarian imperative to save as many people as you can is imperative, and if there are costs you cannot completely control, you still have to make the decision sometimes to go ahead.

So I think we have to be realistic about this. Corruption is a real problem, but, again, emotion, moral instinct, will usually tell you when it is completely wrong and out of control, and you have to draw that line. I think that is the reality.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you implying that sometimes there might be situations where it is warranted, some payoffs?

HUGO SLIM: No, it is never warranted, and we would never do that, but you cannot always control what is going to happen and who is going to take things and do things. When you look the other way and you have given stuff out, you do not know exactly what is going to happen always.

We are very lucky in the ICRC—and it is not just luck, it is our determination—that we maintain our independent logistics. The fourth principle is independence in humanitarian action. We have to convince people we are independent, and so we have our own trucks, our own fleet of planes. We very much manage our own resources as much as possible down to the last mile, as they say.

DEVIN STEWART: If an official or a police officer is managing the operation on the ground and they ask for payment that is under the table, your policy is not to pay?

HUGO SLIM: We will not do that. Remember, we are a very stubborn lot. We are very focused on our principles. In ethics, there is the slippery slope problem: If you do something once, you cannot be sure it will not be the beginning of a slippery slope. In the ICRC we cannot afford a slippery slope on corruption because we need to work tomorrow, we need to work in the neighboring country, we need to keep working in 10, 20, 30 years' time. If we become a victim of corruption, then we will never work well in another place. So I am afraid we are a pretty resolute group and take quite a firm line.

DEVIN STEWART: I think that is the right way to go.

You talked about the teleology of the individual being sort of the ends, safeguarding I would say dignity or a person's welfare. What about the sense of obligation, how do you philosophically think about that? Do you think it is the obligation of individuals or groups or organizations or states? How do you think about the obligation to provide humanitarian aid?

HUGO SLIM: I think it is at every level that you talk about. Again, I think it is a morally wonderful thing that in most crises a lot of people feel: I want to do something. I want to help. I'll give money, or I want to go out and be active in my community.

There is a terrible stereotype, in the Western imagination particularly, about the aid worker. It is usually a white person from another place on a sort of moral expedition to another country. But in fact the reality is that most people are helped by neighbors, by networks that they have, and most people who are in humanitarian agencies are part of those local communities. So the obligation to help is felt and acted on very locally.

Now, we also have to accept that our morality as a species has been changing and growing over the centuries.

DEVIN STEWART: How so?

HUGO SLIM: Because we first of all may want to help our family and our neighbors, but then as we create things like states and as we recognize that actually we are increasingly connected and we can talk about a global society—

DEVIN STEWART: So you are a cosmopolitan?

HUGO SLIM: I am a total cosmopolitan, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: It is nice to meet one.

HUGO SLIM: Really?

DEVIN STEWART: It is rare these days.

HUGO SLIM: No, I am a cosmopolitan, absolutely. I would have to be as a universalist. I mean, I am a universalist who believes that the humanitarian ethic is global and it has local responsibilities, you and me toward each other; and it has national responsibilities, a state toward its citizens; and it has global responsibilities, all states, all peoples, toward fellow citizens.

DEVIN STEWART: What about our obligation to the humanitarian aid worker, him- or herself? I understand that it can be very stressful. Some people suffer from post-traumatic stress. How are you all dealing with the impact of being in the field with your workers?

HUGO SLIM: I think every agency—and I know the ICRC—is always trying to look at stress as a problem in humanitarian work. Some stress can come from seeing terrible things, and in our case seeing terrible things repeatedly.

One of the things we do is visit prisoners, visit detention centers, and people in the ICRC always say that is the hardest thing because they are dealing with people who are stuck there. They can make marginal gains and differences to their conditions, but it is often quite difficult seeing the same people over and over again.

So there are challenges about what you see. But a lot of the stress actually comes from, in a sense, a stressful environment, of working in an organization that is actually increasingly bureaucratic. One big trend in humanitarian action over the last 20 years has been the bureaucratization of these huge global organizations. So a lot of the stress is about being in a high-pressure, big organization. And we have to take care of people, and I don't think we do it as well as we should or could.

But people have a responsibility to take care of themselves as well. I think it is very important that you adopt a principle of self-care and that you love yourself, you show humanity to yourself and not just to others.

DEVIN STEWART: We hit at least four of those humanitarian principles. Did we get to all of them?

HUGO SLIM: The core four. I think there are other ones. There are other ones about how you work with people, and we have talked about that, in a dignified way, including them in the programming and participation of people, ensuring that people have a say in the aid programs around them, that they are the subjects of their survival, not the objects of other people's aid. I think that kind of grammar—

DEVIN STEWART: So agency.

HUGO SLIM: Yes. That kind of grammar is very important in the ethics of humanitarian work.

DEVIN STEWART: Well, I hope this will maybe go on a university syllabus at some point. Maybe just the last question is, are things getting better?

HUGO SLIM: Yes. If you want my honest answer, yes. If you look at global trends around health statistics, educational statistics, poverty statistics, yes, things are getting better, and it is really important to remember that.

But of course, if you talk to someone like me from the International Committee of the Red Cross, we work in war, so the world often looks rather difficult from where we are because we are talking to you from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, whatever. But the very fact that humanitarian action exists on a global scale now as a recognized global ethic is important, and it saves lives every day and it protects people every day. I think it sometimes prevents worse things from happening every day.

DEVIN STEWART: Hugo Slim is head of policy and humanitarian diplomacy at the International Committee of the Red Cross and author of Humanitarian Ethics.

Hugo, thanks again for visiting us today.

HUGO SLIM: Thank you, Devin. Great.

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