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Lise Boudreault

Lise Boudreault (in new window)

'Geneva? That's where I belong.'

The woman from Quebec who dreamt of the Red Cross

Lise Boudreault is a character, a personality, effervescent, a breath of fresh air. She speaks quickly, using her hands a lot. Her laugh is generous and unrestrained. She is moved to tears, gets carried away, then instantly regains her composure and becomes the decisive woman she is. Her French is sprinkled with strange words from ‘over there’ as she refers to her native Quebec. She says ‘tough’ instead of the French word dur, and ‘pushy’ for the French battante. However when she brings up the subject of the Geneva Conventions [the international law on the treatment of noncombatants in time of war], her choice of words and accent is distinctly from the Lake Geneva region. It is then that we realise that she is a ‘Swiss Quebecker’. Forty-two-year-old Lise Boudreault is the diplomatic adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the United Nations.

Romaine Jean, a journalist at Swiss French-language television, interviewed Lise Boudreault.

Photographer Dominique Uldry took the pictures.

RJ: Lise Boudreault, you seem to be happy in Switzerland…

LB: Absolutely! I’ve made up my mind, my heart is here. I arrived in Geneva for the first time in 1991 at the time of a competition on international humanitarian law, the Jean Pictet Competition. I arrived on the TGV at the main station in Geneva-Cornavin – and I had a feeling that I will never forget. I said to myself, ‘I’m home.’ That may seem childish, but it’s true. I had this thought, ‘That’s where I belong!’ [using the English] And I hadn’t even seen the Jet d’eau yet! Even today I still get shivers.

RJ: You’re not just being diplomatic?

LB: Ah no! I love Geneva immensely. I prefer to be unhappy here than happy anywhere else. Besides I didn’t choose Switzerland but the Swiss. I love this country, I love the way the people behave. When they speak to you, they look at you and they listen to you. And then there’s this sense of order and the cleanliness, and the countryside. My love is based a great deal on what I see. You know I come from Quebec. I’m a person who likes water. I’m an aquatic person. When I arrived in Geneva, I was impressed by the lake. True, it can sometimes be a bit pretentious when it behaves like an ocean on the days when the bise [a cold northeastern wind] is blowing. But I need to see it, otherwise I get restless. And then there’s a quality of life in Switzerland that I’ve never found anywhere else and I’ve lived all over the world.

RJ: Tell me what a former competition swimmer from Quebec is doing working virtually at the top of the ICRC structure.

LB: There’s a certain logic to the explanation. I was a competition swimmer in another life, but I also had a certificate as a professional lifeguard. Really! Baywatch style. The approach is the same as at the ICRC. There’s this desire to help people in distress, to save lives, to take responsibilities. And then there’s the sporting aspect, physical, professional, demanding, which also applies to an ICRC delegate in the field.

RJ: So you didn’t just happen to come to the ICRC?

Lise Boudreault (in new window)

'When I was five years old, I dreamt of the Red Cross emblem.'

LB: Not at all. You won’t believe this, but when I was five years old, I was already dreaming of the Red Cross emblem. My sisters tell me that I had a dream. ‘I had a dream!’ [using the English] (laughs) Someone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a missionary in the bush taking care of the injured and the suffering. And I drew dozens of little red crosses which took the shape of a single large one! When I was eight years old after we had spoken of Solferino and Henry Dunant, I wrote in my catechism notebook, Dear God, let me work at the ICRC. I rediscovered the notebook much later. Then one day I met a delegate coming back from a mission in Cambodia. He told me about the efforts of the ICRC to help hundreds of thousand of refugees gathered on the border with Thailand and to channel all this human suffering. I said to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’ And I did it! In 1993 when the ICRC signed an Accord de Siège with Berne, the ICRC began employing foreigners. That was the beginning of the adventure.

RJ: Even so, you’re young, a woman and a foreigner – all points against you for making a career in this temple of masculine ‘Swissitude’.

LB: You know I don’t feel like a man or a woman. At work I am Lise Boudreault. In private life that’s another thing. I have never felt handicapped being a woman. On the contrary! In Quebec the gender issue, the difference between the sexes at work, doesn’t exist. We are more individualists. We have to perform, be the best, win. When a woman arrives at her office, she’s a colleague like any other. Personally, I have a natural authority and that isn’t a problem for me. Here, the difference between the sexes is more noticeable. The men are gallant, charming. It’s nice but at the same time it’s true that decision-making levels of society resemble a boy’s club. There’s still this idea that a woman has to get married and have children to be complete. The biological clock must be a Swiss invention that I haven’t integrated yet!

RJ: Is Swiss society less competitive?

LB: Definitely. The social fabric in Switzerland is tight. There’s a kind of faithfulness in relations, solidarity. I’ve heard colleagues speak about someone, ‘We can’t fire him. He has three children.’ Swiss society is more humane even though that is changing too. It has another relationship with authority. In Switzerland, people like to be part of the group. Leadership is not necessarily a welcome position. In Quebec, where the American influence is strong, it’s more an attitude of ‘the best wins’.

RJ: With this temperament haven’t you ever been irritated by the slowness of decision-making in Switzerland?

LB: Of course. At the first meetings at the ICRC I was struck by the climate that existed there. In Switzerland, you can live with open questions whereas in Quebec, you start looking for answers right away. Here everybody says you can live a long time without a decision. In the beginning I had to restrain myself from banging on tables. I still tell myself, ‘It’s up to you to adapt. You’re not back home and you’ve had the good fortune to be welcome here.’ I know there’s a contradiction between my own nature and the spirit of the institution, but when I wear the ICRC badge, I am part of that institution. I think that it is exactly this spirit, this ‘Swissitude’ that lets the ICRC achieve what it does. So I adapt. Unlike Buddha, I’m in favour of ‘the way and the goal’!

RJ: What have you found to be the qualities of this country?

LB: To do things well. It is deeply ingrained in the Swiss nature. You find it everywhere – in the language, in the work, in the manner of dressing. And the people are civil, pleasant. There’s a genuine goodness, a real wish to help people in difficulty. Maybe you don’t take it into account yourself, but when someone describes Switzerland as a ‘haven of peace’ that’s the reality. These qualities must really exist in this country because the whole world dreams about it!

RJ: You sound a bit like a promoter for the Swiss tourist office.

LB: Maybe, but when I speak about Geneva, I say yes. You can feel the spirit of Rousseau here. Here you believe in the goodness of people. They do good things without trumpeting it because assistance is a duty. The ICRC is a typical product of this spirit.

RJ: Why don’t you have a Swiss passport?

LB: I want passionately to have one. I’ve been connected to this country for 15 years, but I have travelled a great deal and unfortunately I still don’t meet the conditions. In 1989, a delegate advised me to get married to become Swiss! I didn’t take his advice! (laughs) It was just as well because at the time you had to be single to become a delegate! It was a narrow escape. But it’s true, I’m really driven to have the red passport with the white cross.

RJ: So in spite of everything you will remain exotic?

LB: Yes, in spite of myself. And besides, my accent makes people smile. When I do my shopping, whenever I open my mouth the saleswomen say, ‘The lady is Canadian!’ One day I was visiting a friend and his mother told me after hearing me speak, ‘It’s true that French is a difficult language.’ (laughs) So I’m exotic, it’s true. I speak with everyone. You know that Quebeckers have Latin temperaments. They have a tendency to talk too much, to gesticulate too much, to like to party too much. (laughs)

RJ: Do you consider the ICRC to be an emanation of the Swiss spirit?

Lise Boudreault (in new window)

LB: Yes, definitely, the best of the Swiss spirit. At the ICRC, there’s a kind of respect for the hierarchy, a respect for decisions that have been made after considerable thought. And when these decisions go into effect, everyone applies them. And then the spirit of neutrality is essential. The delegates on the ground are not burdened by a past of colonial frustration or conflict. I think it was good that the organisation began accepting foreign delegates in 1993, but the identity of the institution must remain as it was. The ICRC is a reflection of Swiss society. There’s a humble aspect about it, even modest. They call it ‘the old lady’, someone who provokes nobody and is totally predictable. She remembers her history, the Geneva Conventions which are more than 100 years old. I like this notion of durability, predictability, confidentiality and discretion, all of which are Swiss qualities. Here, the people like secrets. It’s not surprising that this country invented the ICRC and banking secrecy.

RJ: On the subject of banking secrecy, Switzerland is criticised for playing nurse through the ICRC, but at the same time serving as a shelter for the money of dictators.

LB: This is certainly dangerous ground. There is ‘this’ Switzerland with its financial and tax regulations. There has been a succession of political and economic leaders in Switzerland who have made crucial choices for this country in the past. Then there’s private enterprise with its banks, particularly Swiss, but foreign banks too. In brief there’s a malaise. It’s always interesting to listen to Swiss people discussing this issue, who are capable of being quite critical. I see in this the good health of a society of citizens who can take a step back, express ideas and debate them. But I think it’s dangerous to mention the ICRC and Swiss banks in the same breath even if it’s true that Henry Dunant was a banker!

RJ: You were an ICRC delegate and then head of delegation, in Rwanda during the genocide, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and in Bosnia during the height of the war there. Do you feel that you helped reduce the level of the horror?

LB: Yes, sometimes. At the institutional level there’s no doubt, but at the personal level it is very difficult to assess your own contribution. You rarely leave a war zone saying, ‘Yes, it was worth it. I did good work.’ Given the immensity of the suffering caused by war, there is always so much, so much more that can be done. I recall one time where on a personal level I was sure that I had made a difference. I don’t want to go into details but I know that in Sierra Leone my action was decisive at a certain moment… (silence)

RJ: It’s an emotional subject for you…

Lise Boudreault (in new window)

'The ICRC is the emanation of the best of the Swiss spirit.'

LB: Yes. I have both happy and painful memories. You know when you work in the field at the ICRC you often feel contradictory sentiments. I think back to a time in Africa to the joy I felt at having contributed to the liberation of young prisoners and the sadness of knowing that at the same time they were going to be sent back to the front when they arrived home without even having seen their families. In Eritrea, I remember too how the work of the ICRC enabled the release of 700 prisoners of war from jails after years of captivity, but on the day of repatriation, two prisoners were missing; they had committed suicide a few weeks before the announcement of the liberation. In working for this organisation, you learn modesty. My rule of thumb is 200 per cent commitment, 0 per cent expectation. Otherwise you become cynical, bitter. I’m convinced that each day little miracles occur that you don’t read about in the newspapers. If I didn’t believe this I would leave the job. I’ve had discouraging moments, of course. I even handed in my badge in a fit of anger. But you know at times when the horror is worst, you find glimmers of humanity. I’m not disappointed. The image of the ICRC I had in my dream when I was five years old was the right one.

RJ: What values count for you?

LB: Life! Does brother turn against brother? I don’t know. I’m always looking for an answer. The role of the ICRC is to bring a little humanity to the horror. I met a rebel chief in Liberia and in an environment of unmitigated violence, I spoke to him about the Geneva Conventions. He told me, ‘Lise, I had forgotten that humanity existed.’ He then began to change certain fighting methods used by his men. He was deeply committed. It was really extraordinary. Unfortunately there isn’t a happy ending to the story. When we saw each other again some weeks later, his superiors had attacked him. He told me, ‘You know it’s all screwed up here now. It’s too late. Hell has returned. Go to Rwanda. There it’s still possible to do something. They need you there.’ It was before the genocide in Rwanda. This man was later assassinated.

RJ: Is it all really worth it then?

LB: Yes, I think so. What I have learned in the field is that in the most horrifying moments, a human remains human. I’ve seen nastiness, real hate, but I have been close enough to the hate to understand why people feel that way. In Sarajevo in 1995 a bomb exploded quite close to our office. And I remained very calm. In other places, I have seen people die after days of suffering. It’s worse. (silence) But then we should never compare horror with horror.

RJ: We’re going to end this talk with a test to see if you deserve a Swiss passport. Do you like Cenovis [Swiss version of Marmite]?

LB: I eat it every day and I take it with me on mission. I tell you I am ‘bitten’, to the point that my watch is always on Geneva time. Even when I’m in Quebec, my watch shows a six-hour time difference. My friends told me ‘you’re crazy’!

RJ: And you prefer Ragusa [Swiss chocolate] or tête de nègre [chocolate and marshmallow confection]!

LB: (laughs) They’ve changed the name of that confection. It wasn’t politically correct! Now they call it tête au choco. In any case, I’m not a sweet girl [using the English], but I’m hooked on Dézaley wine. Anyway as you can see I love the Swiss way of life and I play jass [a simplified form of bridge].

The interview was conducted in French and translated into English by Paul Sufrin.

Lise Boudreault was born in Quebec on 24 April 1963. She holds degrees in political science and psychology, another in law from the University of Montreal and a licence to practice law from the Quebec Bar. She completed her university career with a diploma from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. She joined the ICRC in 1993 as a delegate, then became head of delegation notably in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bosnia. Today she is ICRC diplomatic advisor at the United Nations.

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