Robert Mardini: a well-versed man; soon-to-be ICRC General Director
As of March 2020, this 47-year-old Swiss-Lebanese will be the new Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A look back at his rich journey.
He is to move to Geneva next month for his new position after spending more than a year in New York as ICRC head of delegation and permanent observer to the United Nations.
Mr. Mardini receives the Orient-Le Jour in his office, a stone's throw from the U.N headquarters, for an interview during which he looks back on his career: 22 years in the field, at ICRC headquarters and at the United Nations.
From war-stricken Tripoli
Robert Mardini is a child of war. "Three years after I was born in Tripoli, the civil war broke out in Lebanon," he says. A period he recalls as "difficult," especially when his father’s business - he owned a photo lab which was "one of the first in the city that developed color pictures" - started to suffer . “Street wars, car bombs, bombings" are what he remembers from this period. It was also around this time that he discovered the Lebanese Red Cross, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "I saw them work and help the most disadvantaged, and it was something that stayed forever in my mind.”
Mardini obtained his scientific baccalaureate from the French Lycée in Tripoli in northern Lebanon. He was planning to pursue his education in Lyon, but ended up in Switzerland where he studied engineering at the "École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). In 1996, he spotted during a business-student forum an ICRC stand. " For me then, the ICRC offers first aid, because this is what I saw them doing during my childhood in Lebanon”. When he learned that the international organization had an engineering unit, he jumped on the occasion and applied. "I was hired in no time”.
Neutrality and impartiality
Mardini was first dispatched to Kigali, Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide, which had left 800,000 dead, according to a UN report. He remained there for a year and a half. In 1998, he was sent to Iraq where he was in charge of the rehabilitation of the pumping and drinking water treatment stations.
It was during his first field missions that Mardini understood the importance of the ICRC which "operates in a polarized environment, where people no longer trust one another, and where neutrality and impartiality, the two basic principles of the organization, become essential." He said representing the ICRC means "how to put your convictions aside and negotiate for others. Neutrality and impartiality become second nature”.
After his mission in Iraq, he was called back to the committee’s headquarters where he joined the Water and Habitat division to develop the ICRC’s expertise in civil engineering. While based in Geneva, Mardini continued to travel back and forth to help the teams working on the ground. He visited Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Burundi, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen and Syria. Gradually, he kept on climbing the ladder: first as an expert in civil engineering, then deputy chief and head of the Water and Habitat division. In 2010, he was appointed deputy general director of the ICRC, and in 2012, he served as regional director for the Near and Middle East, a post he held until July 2018.
If he had to choose one country that particularly marked him during his field visits, it would be Yemen. "I first discovered this country in 2006. I think it is one of the most striking humanitarian disasters ever."
His field experience enabled him to best carry out his mission as an ICRC representative to the United Nations. “At the Security Council, we try to bring the experiences of those affected to the center of discussions, de-politicize the debates as much as possible, influence states when they vote for resolutions to strengthen the protection of civilians trapped in conflicts, and optimize humanitarian access,” he explained.
The ICRC, he said, is an organization of more than 20,000 employees, and has a budget of $ 2.2 billion. “Between 2011 and 2019, the ICRC budget increased by 70%. This is not an indicator of success, but rather a sign that armed conflicts can no longer be resolved by the parties to the conflict and the international community. "
Robert Mardini knows well that his mission will not be an easy one. “We are in an increasingly polarized world; a world where humanitarian action is often politicized and used by one or the other in order to support their own version of events."
His main objective, as he is preparing within a few weeks to assume his new responsibilities, "is that the ICRC remains relevant to those affected by armed conflicts... and for these people to know that the committee can play an essential role even during the darkest times.”
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the