By Michael Ignatieff
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in 1863, the brainchild of Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman who had witnessed the Battle of Solferino between France and Austria in 1859 and was shocked by the carnage that resulted from the neglect of the wounded.
Dunant campaigned throughout Europe for a new principle, that wounded enemy soldiers deserved the same medical treatment as troops of one’s own nation. Five Geneva notables set up a committee in 1863 with Dunant as its secretary, the nucleus of what was to become the International Committee of the Red Cross, and in 1864, the Swiss government hosted a sixteen-nation international conference to recommend improvements in medical services on the battlefield. Parties to this first Geneva Convention agreed that hospitals, ambulances, and medical staff should be viewed as neutral in conflict and adopted the red cross as the symbol of the medical corps.
From its inception, the ICRC has had a unique and intimate relationship to the Geneva Conventions. Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols of 1977, the ICRC has the mandate to: (a) visit and register prisoners of war, and to deliver mail and food parcels; (b) deliver emergency humanitarian aid to civilians in the midst of armed conflicts; (c) trace missing persons, civilian and military, and reunite them with their families; (d) train armed forces to respect international humanitarian law; (e) extend and develop the Geneva Conventions; and (f) act as go-betweens to secure prisoner exchanges, repatriations, and release of hostages.
The ICRC now has delegations in over fifty countries, just under half of them in Africa. Its annual budget is just over $550 million, most of which comes from governments, chiefly the United States, the European Union, Scandinavian countries, and Switzerland. Its executive committee is entirely Swiss, most of its delegates are still Swiss—though they are recruiting non-Swiss nationals.
ICRC representatives, known as “delegates” work with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the field, and most of their local field workers come from the national societies. Institutionally, however, the ICRC looks on the national societies warily, believing that some of their leaderships are either corrupt or excessively partial to the policies of the local ruling elites.
The ICRC is a unique organization in terms of its legal status under international law, its role in establishing and upholding the Geneva Conventions, and its history and role in bringing relief impartially to civilian victims and the wounded of all nations. These different roles give rise to a unique moral dilemma, whether to denounce publicly the violators of the laws that the ICRC seeks to uphold and develop and that provide the organization its special status, or operate discreetly in order to preserve its ability to cross battle lines, gain access to prisoners, and monitor their treatment. Put more simply, the question is whether the ICRC should speak out—and risk losing access to victims—or keep silent and become complicit in evil.
It is a difficult call, and through most of its history the ICRC has chosen to remain publicly silent. The organization is haunted by its failures. Despite securing initial access to German concentration camps as early as 1935, and despite acquiring unrivaled intelligence about Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews, the ICRC leadership in Geneva failed either to reveal what it knew or to make any public protest. Courageous delegates did save Jews in Hungary and Greece, but the organization did not secure access to the camps until 1945, when it was too late.
This dilemma recurred in July 1992, when ICRC delegates became aware of Serb detention camps in central Bosnia where Muslim prisoners were being starved, tortured, and subjected to summary execution. This time, while maintaining public silence on the matter, local ICRC delegates provided off-the-record corroboration of information journalists had secured from other sources, and thus helped to break the story of the camps. There are times that the ICRC denounces gross human rights violations, but officially the organization is still unwilling to take public stands, for fear of compromising its reputation for neutrality and impartiality.
As an organization dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century, the ICRC has an immense institutional memory. It visited and transmitted Red Cross messages and parcels for millions of POWs in two world wars; its tracing agency helped reunite hundreds of thousands of refugee families; its delegates have been eyewitnesses to every major armed conflict since 1864, and its expertise in negotiating access to all sides of a conflict is unrivaled.
Independence is its watchword. Officially, its representatives keep their distance from other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the field and from the UN. During the Bosnian War, they fought tenaciously to keep their operation separate from UN agencies, refusing convoy escorts from UN peacekeepers, for example, on the grounds that it would compromise their neutrality.
It is an organization which goes by the book—the Geneva Conventions, their clauses and subclauses. This legalistic bias gives their work precision and discipline, but there are other humanitarian organizations (Médecins sans Frontières, for example) that are critical of their cautious, lawyerly neutrality. But the ICRC, like its crusading founder, also plays a central role in campaigns to “civilize” warfare, such as banning blinding laser weapons and antipersonnel land mines.
Since its creation, the ICRC has been trying to stay true to its mission of being “first in and last out” of any war zone. In the increasingly crowded and competitive field of international humanitarian relief, that helps it stand apart. This has sometimes paid off. During the NATO air strikes in Bosnian Serb territory in August 1995, all the NGOs from NATO countries were evacuated. The ICRC remained and was able to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Serb civilians forcibly cleared from the Krajinas by Croat and Muslim forces.
In August 1998, Tomahawk missiles slammed into an Afghan facility the U.S. government said was a terrorist training camp. In the streets of the Afghan capital, Kabul, crowds tried to take over the American embassy; shots were fired at foreigners and two aid workers were killed. The UN evacuated all its personnel from Afghanistan to nearby Pakistan. So did all the NGOs. Only the ICRC remained. Thirty of its delegates stayed on, feeding the war widows of Kabul, keeping the military hospitals open, fitting prosthetic limbs on child amputees, and trying to keep their lines of communication open to all of the factions in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war.
The ICRC sometimes pays the price for its staying on. On December 17, 1996, in an ICRC hospital near Grozny, Chechnya, masked assailants scaled the wall of the compound and using pistols fitted with silencers executed six Red Cross personnel in their sleep. But the ICRC still refuses to post armed guards inside hospitals or as escorts for their convoys.