Peacekeeping missions with Australia’s army and ‘talking under water’ with the Red Cross
10 May 2021|

Kath Stewart has served as Australian Army officer on peacekeeping missions, with the strength of a military force behind her, and as an unarmed official from the International Committee of the Red Cross with just her wits, experience and negotiating skills to calm violent situations.

Now she’s in Canberra as the ICRC’s armed and security forces delegate.

Over 30 years as an Australian Army officer, Stewart took part in four major, and diverse, operations starting in 1997 as part of the truce monitoring group in Bougainville.

As a young captain she was part of a 20-strong forward group and quickly became aware of the complexities of such operations. The Australians had been invited by the Bougainville forces and the Papua New Guinea government to monitor the ceasefire between them.

But when the Australians arrived, one of the first questions Stewart was asked was: ‘Why are you invading us?’

That gave her an early perspective on how those involved could see the same situation very differently.

Then she went to Syria, Israel and Lebanon as a peacekeeper with the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization. She recalls being completely outside her comfort zone, working with individuals from 22 different nations and negotiating with people driven by entirely different goals.

That meant understanding what was motivating those people, even if she did not agree with them, and seeking solutions that were as mutually beneficial as possible.

In 2003, she joined the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, working with 10 regional partners trying to re-establish the rule of law there. She commanded nearly 100 personnel providing communications. That involved considerable time spent in outlying villages and learning local norms and customs.

Then came a deployment to the Middle East helping plan coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, how did those operations prepare her for her role with the Red Cross?

‘The training and experience I got in the ADF was excellent and it did help me understand how important it is to listen to people when you go into a different situation’, says Stewart. ‘You have the training behind you, you rely on that training. You work with a team in the ADF, but also in the ICRC.’

Listen to Brendan Nicholson’s interview with Kath Stewart in the latest episode of Policy, Guns and Money:

Working in highly professional, motivated teams with a mix of strong negotiation, leadership and people skills is fundamental, Stewart says, but so is listening to the people you’re there to help.

How big a mental shift was required in making the transition from peacekeeping and monitoring in a military organisation to the strict neutrality of the Red Cross?

The values of the ADF and the ICRC are similar, Stewart says, so that part of the change was easy. The two organisations have very different objectives, but they have mutual interests.

An early experience with the ICRC took her to Israel where she dealt with armed groups while she was, of course, unarmed.

‘What it really reinforced to me is the importance of negotiation skills and the ability to use your wits to get the message across, but to maintain that neutrality and independence so that you can have a difficult but balanced conversation with the people that you’re talking with.’

Her work with the ICRC involves visiting detainees, reuniting families, supporting livelihood projects, and helping improve the access to essential services of people on the ground. ‘All of those things needed me to be able to talk to those that carry weapons, but also the people we were there to help.’

In the Middle East she used her experience and knowledge to challenge negative assumptions about her being a woman, where she says ‘being able to represent the ICRC well and question those stereotypes, and actually provide an example of positive change and how a more inclusive future, including women’s opinions, could be incorporated into those different cultures.’

The women she dealt with found it easier to approach her. ‘Unfortunately, most of the people that carry weapons are male so there were not as many women in that group that I spoke to, whether it be the military or the non-state armed groups or the militias that we would deal with.

‘It’s mainly a male dominated society and so I would have to adjust and just talk to them on a professional level and show them that I knew what I was talking about, I had shared experiences with them from my military background, I understood the language that they were talking and could respond in language that they understood, and that helped build the relationship and the trust. Therefore, we could talk professionally and we could move away from necessarily the gender issue.’

A major first step for those in the ICRC is to convince rival groups that the Red Cross is a firmly neutral organisation with a total focus on humanitarian work. ‘It’s incredibly difficult as different groups have different perceptions, and you need to allay those fears and you do that by actually doing what you say you will do.

‘It is incredibly important to the ICRC, this neutrality, the impartiality and the independence,’ Stewart says.

‘The other part of it is the confidential dialogue that we have, that these groups know that what we talk about will not be exposed to other people. We bring our concerns to them, we raise those concerns about potential violations of international humanitarian law, issues of their impact on the civilians on the ground. We talk to them about it, and then we also leave it up to them to deal with it as they can within their own laws and within the realm of international humanitarian law.’

Being seconded to the UN as a peacekeeping observer is a very different experience to being with the Red Cross, Stewart says.

‘You are still a member of the military when you are a UN military observer, so you have behind you your uniform, you have other elements of the peacekeeping force that are armed, you have a UN mandate. So that makes a difference to how you are perceived by various organisations’, she says.

That does not necessarily guarantee safety or security, though, because some organisations don’t respect what UN peacekeepers are there to achieve.

‘Whereas with the ICRC, I think because of its significant history, nearly 170 years of history of being able to show that it does what it says it will do provides us that access, acceptance and therefore that reinforces our own security, even though we are unarmed.’

Sometimes the Red Cross teams must approach armed groups about issues they don’t want to talk about. ‘But it’s really important that we do that to raise the awareness of the impact they are having, the negative impact they are having on the civilians on the ground.’

Stewart is not a lawyer but when she joined the ICRC she received six weeks of training covering the basics of international humanitarian law, which is the cornerstone of the ICRC’s mandate. That knowledge is crucial, along with negotiating skills.

‘Humanitarian diplomacy is one of the key areas that we work towards, being able to influence decision-makers so that they can make good decisions that are actually to the benefit of the civilians on the ground and those that are most in need.’

It helps, says Stewart, that ‘I can talk underwater’.

That helped persuade those she negotiated with that she understood them and what they considered to be the military necessity.

‘But I balanced that against what the needs were of the people on the ground that were suffering because of their presence or actions that they were taking. So, it’s difficult, but it’s certainly looking at what you are there to do, the fact that you are there to help people and that if you don’t do that, their lives are impacted quite badly.

‘So, when you can see what your objective is, when you remember that objective, it’s really easy to be able to use that knowledge, your wits, to get the best outcome for them.’