Inspired by the pragmatic and uncontroversial organizational mandate.


Kevin Karlen, Legal Associate


1.      Hello Kevin, can you introduce yourself in a few words?

Hi, I’m 26 years old and I come from the Valais region of Switzerland. Before joining the ICRC, I did my Bachelor’s in international relations at the University of Geneva, worked for the human rights NGO Trial International and then started my Master’s in public international law at Leiden University. After that, I taught German at a reception centre for asylum seekers, interned at the Directorate of International Law of the Swiss Foreign Ministry and then joined the ICRC.

2.      When did you join the ICRC? In which department/unit?

I joined the ICRC in August 2018, as a legal associate in the Advisory Service on international humanitarian law (IHL), within the International Law and Policy Department. I finished my traineeship in August 2019, and am now working as a legal adviser in the very same unit.

3.      Why did you decide to do a traineeship at the ICRC?

I always had the ICRC on my radar when I was younger. I don’t really remember why, but I think everyone knows the Red Cross or Red Crescent, and many people have a hard time understanding the difference between all the actors in the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. So the general positive association with the brand must come from my early childhood. Then, at university, I attended some wonderful lectures on IHL by Professor Robert Kolb. I really just discovered it there and had not known much about it before. Learning about such a fundamental set of norms was a big eye-opener. Also, the role of ICRC in developing IHL showed me something about the Movement I hadn’t heard before: the very particular mandate and mission of the ICRC, and its approach, which I perceived to be very pragmatic and uncontroversial. This is something every actor on the battlefield must respect almost out of common sense.

The fact that the ICRC conducts bilateral and confidential dialogues with parties to conflict was another big factor: I had the impression that if many actors spoke out in public, this would bar access to the very areas they were talking about, and hence preclude the possibility of helping on the ground. While raising awareness is crucial, I saw my role more on the side of those helping on the frontlines. So, in a sense, becoming part of this organization was an ideal of sorts during my studies. To be honest, I thought I would never make it. But when I saw the opening for legal traineeships, and having accumulated a certain amount of experience in the field, I thought I should give it a try. And here I am now!

4.      As an associate, can you describe the scope of your responsibilities? What projects did you work on?

Before replying to that question in particular, I really have to say that one great thing about working with the ICRC is the unbelievable concentration of amazingly smart, kind and motivated people working here. During my traineeship, I felt I was part and parcel of the team from the first moment on, and even as a trainee my opinion was always valued and taken into account. I was briefed by all my colleagues and then my tasks came up somewhat organically.

A major part of my work was preparing documents for my colleagues. Since the Advisory Service on IHL assists States in implementing IHL at the national level through a global network of legal advisers, I would be in touch with some of our regional legal advisers on an almost daily basis. I would provide them with content for presentations, write draft speeches for the UN in New York and touch on different legal issues in different parts of the world, while sitting in my small office in Geneva.

Another big task was managing our national implementation database, which showcases implementing legislation from many different countries. I know this all sounds technical, but the idea behind it is to exchange information on how to best ensure respect for IHL and that really is fundamental for the work of the ICRC. However, the database is hard to manage with the limited resources available to our unit, and my manager gave me the space to think about ways to improve it. We started a project. Although I could not implement it in the short time of my traineeship, I hope my successors will be able to finalize the project. With my new role, my tasks have changed and I work on other topics now.

5.      Do you have any special memories or anecdotes to share with us?

Just recently, when I went through the process of becoming a delegate, I had my job interview at headquarters, in the building where our human resources department is located.


"My interview was supposed to start at 9.30 a.m. I arrived a few minutes early and introduced myself to the interviewer, who told me he would see me in a few minutes. Unfortunately, at the very moment when he came to get me, the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the building. The first moments of the interview actually took place on the stairs, while we were walking outside."


I found it a very creative way for them to start a job interview, and I think it might have given them a very particular first impression of me.

6.      What are your future plans?

I will be an ICRC delegate very soon and actually get to go to the frontlines, as I’ve always wanted. I am very excited about this opportunity. In the meantime, I will stay at headquarters in Geneva.