European Affairs

It was hardly the first time that the ICRC has faced hostility in its history, a history which now extends over almost a century and a half. Controversies about the Committee’s mandate and principles are much more complicated these days, but no less intense.

Headquartered in Geneva as a private, self-governing Swiss Association, the ICRC sets the membership standards for all the national organizations – like the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross etc. There are about 185 national societies today, and together with the ICRC they form something called the “Red Cross Movement.”

The ICRC’s operating budget totals between $600 and $650 million per year, 85% of which it attracts from governments, mainly the U.S. and European governments. And it almost inevitably attracts great gusts of criticism whenever it acts. That’s because the ICRC’s principles constantly put it between contending armies as it provides aid to all who are victims: wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, civilians. It helps them all in a manner that is both neutral and impartial: neutral in the sense that it sides with no combatant in conflicts; impartial in the sense that it works hard to ensure that its actions do not provide advantage to any side.

Put simply, the ICRC, is not just “caught in the middle:” it deliberately puts itself there. And that’s never comfortable. A rigorous neutrality no more guarantees immunity from criticism than wearing a Red Cross badge on one’s clothing or vehicle ensures safety from hostile fire: in fact, since the end of the cold war several ICRC workers have been killed in the line of duty.

But if the ICRC has predictable critics, it also has constant supporters. And that support takes shape in a shifting geographical pattern: it seems that the closest you are or recently have been exposed to actual combat, the more likely you to be supportive of the ICRC’s mission. Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC in Washington D.C., reports that the recent ICRC aid to the Taliban was fully understood and supported by a number of uniformed U.S. military officers. And one of ICRC’s staunchest supporters is Senator John McCain, a former Republican Presidential candidate who spent several years as a harshly treated POW after being shot down over North Vietnam.

Neutrality in War Zones is Not Easy

For critics of the ICRC, it is the organization’s commitment to neutrality that they find neither possible nor desirable once the guns begin to fire. Such critics would include Dante, who famously warned that the “hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” And at about the time the ICRC was founded Florence Nightingale opposed the idea of a neutral non-government agency dealing with war’s destruction. She feared that such an organization would just provide an excuse for the governments involved not to step up to their responsibilities. Today, all those criticisms can still be heard, but they resonate in an almost geometrically more complicated international scene.

And the fact is that, Dante’s observation notwithstanding, the ICRC’s neutrality between warring combatants in no way equates to neutrality on the great moral issues. On the contrary, since its inception the ICRC has taken a very powerful and principled stand on the most serious and sanguinary moral issue of this or any age – whether actions can and should be taken in an effort to restrain the dogs of war.

The ICRC is standing in the face of the persistent and prominent view that “all’s fair in love and war.” That’s a view that has been given scholarly articulation by noteworthy thinkers. The “dean” of Western war strategists, the Prussian Karl von Clausewitz, saw no room for attempts to limit the ferocity of war: “We can never introduce a modifying principle into the philosophy of war without committing an absurdity.” And Hugo Grotius, the 17th-century Dutch Protestant jurist and theologian, was even more plain: “Everything which serves the cause of war is permitted.” In his view, all people on the opposing side were enemies – whether they were the old, the children, or the sick – as well as all soldiers, whether able-bodied or wounded.

Contrary to that view, the ICRC insists that the horrors of war can be mitigated. And if they can, they must. Its central position is simple: those who are found on battlefields or its environs, but for whatever reason are not engaged in hostile actions, must be safe-guarded and treated with care and dignity. Put another way, those who are ‘hors de combat’ are also beyond praise or blame for whatever the purported cause in which they might have so recently engaged. They are victims, not warriors.

Jus In Bello

For its part, the ICRC deals only with the question of how wars are conducted, always leaving alone the question whether any war should be conducted: that is to say, the ICRC looks only at the jus in bello question, never at jus ad bellum. And that is the basis for its careful neutrality: by treating all the war wounded or endangered equally, the ICRC steadfastly refuses to take sides or positions in war, whatever the reasons may be.

(This nexus of questions about humanitarian relief workers’ inter-actions with military people on or near the battlefield was debated in a conference at the European Institute in 2006. ICRC workers maintain the separation very strictly: they decline even to ride in vehicles containing a weapon – relying instead on their ability to negotiate safe passage for themselves in contested terrain.)

So it is clear that the ICRC has constructed its mandate on carefully considered principles. But the ICRC didn’t arrive at those principles in calm reflections around seminar tables, or in the musty stacks of libraries: the ICRC began on the front lines, on the tail-end of a three-day battle, leaving a field soaked with blood and strewn with grotesquely mutilated wounded and dying soldiers. This was the aftermath of the battle of Solferino, an Italian city where the forces of Napoleon III met the Austro-Hungarian Army on a front that was only a few miles wide. For three days some three hundred thousand soldiers viciously fought, resulting in an unspeakably sanguinary slaughter. The European powers fighting the battle provided more veterinarians for their horses than doctors for their wounded soldiers.

As it happened, a young Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, happened to come across the battle’s aftermath while he was on a business trip. Here are some of the accounts of what he witnessed: “When the sun came up the day after the battle it disclosed the most dreadful sight imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, thickets and fields; the approaches to Solferino were literally thick with dead … Some who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery, and writhed with faces distorted in the gasp of the death struggle …”

After having witnessed the profusion of these horrors, Dunant simply continued on his business trip, but he remained haunted by what he had seen. Two years later he sat down and wrote quickly and passionately A Memory of Solferino, a book bearing witness to his experience which found a receptive audience in Switzerland – and soon far beyond. Almost in passing, towards the end of his text, Dunant mulled over the possibility that perhaps some sort of a committee or commission, accepted by all nations, could be set up that would, among other goals, ensure fast, effective and equal medical aid to those wounded on the battlefield.

A couple of years later the first Geneva Convention took place incorporating the principles Dunant conceived at Solferino. From its beginnings, the ICRC has combined two aspirations to ameliorate the horrors of war. One effort concentrates on formulating principles and laws to safeguard the well-being and dignity of civilians and other non-combatants caught up in combat. The other effort centers on a commitment to provide concrete aid to victims.

Unbeknownst to Dunant and his colleagues, at just about that same time, efforts were taking place in the U.S. by two Americans who sought to take up the two different efforts defining the ICRC’s project.

Rules of War Emerge in U.S.

During the American Civil War several generals in the Union Army were concerned about what kinds of rules should govern their actions. A German immigrant named Francis Lieber, professor and writer, visited his son who had lost an arm fighting for the Union and saw first-hand the wide disparity in the ways that injured warriors and POW’s were treated. So Lieber set out to formulate some general rules for the conduct of war in a lecture course. The Union General McClellan was in the audience for those lectures and in time President Lincoln ordered that those rules should shape the actions of all soldiers fighting for the Union.

About that same time, a diminutive but fiery middle-aged woman named Clara Barton joined an organization called the “Sanitary Commission” to help the Civil War wounded. She soon heard of the formation of the ICRC in Switzerland and resolved both to ensure that the United States signed onto the original Geneva Convention and to establish a national chapter in the U.S. She was successful in both efforts, and the headquarters for the America Red Cross in Washington, DC, is named after her.

Over time, most other countries have also added national chapters, together forming the Red Cross “Movement.” (The Red Cross symbol is the Swiss flag with the colors reversed, but it has seemed to some to have a religious echo, and the movement in the Muslim world is known as the “Red Crescent.”)

The roles played by the ICRC and the national chapters overlap to some extent, but, in general, in “manmade” or political disasters, the ICRC is the lead actor and coordinating agent. The national societies may become more involved in natural or industrial disasters. Moreover, national societies have closer connections to the nation’s militaries. That is one reason ICRC keeps its distance.

Observing the ICRC nearly 150 years after its inception, one is reminded of Emerson’s observation that an institution is but the lengthened shadow of its founder, and, in many ways, that’s true of the ICRC. As Dunant’s shadow has lengthened, the mandate of the Committee has steadily broadened as well, constantly fitting central commitments to changing conditions. Its history has been punctuated with variations and improvisations of a central theme: the theme of helping the non-combatant victims, and those who are hors de combat through injury or surrender, in an entirely neutral and impartial way. It started in 1863 with a concern for war wounded, and by WWI it had added a concern both for civilians and captured combatants in international war, even though such a concern had not yet been crystallized into a Geneva Convention. (That came with the Convention of 1949.)

From the perspective of the ICRC, all that matters is protecting human dignity regardless of the source of the threat – this was the point of Common Article Three, the part of the Geneva Conventions that is most often referenced these days, given the changing nature of conflicts.

Strictly speaking, the ICRC is not a Non-Government Organization (NGO) as the ICRC’s governing body, the Assembly, is all Swiss. The organization has been the catalyst for International Humanitarian Law since the beginning. The ICRC drafts articles for treaties, hosts meetings of experts, articulates its view of the contents of customary international law in armed conflicts, as well as bringing humanitarian aid on the ground. Its special status is reflected in the fact that the organization has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. Also, because its commitment to provide information about what it finds in its visits to POW facilities only to the country or party in charge of them, ICRC delegates cannot be subpoenaed to testify at war crimes trials before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This historical background can set the stage for a closer look at the increasingly complicated and ambiguous international scene in which today’s ICRC carries out its mission. Here are a few features of that current congestion of complexity:

  • There’s an increased number of asymmetric battles with ambiguous boundaries
  • Meantime, militaries – especially Western militaries – are increasingly moving from kinetic warfare to community welfare
  • There is an ever-increasing number of humanitarian organizations vying for money and the positive publicity that helps to gather it – a heightened “compassion competition”

For centuries – essentially since the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, the only actors in ‘international space’ were sovereign states. Wars took place between those states, and International Humanitarian Law was state-centric. But now individuals can, in some cases, be held liable, as in the special tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the ICC. And it is no longer the case that wars are always or even primarily conflicts between states: there are civil wars across the globe, as well as ‘asymmetrical wars’ in which a nation state might fight a transnational or sub-national foe, (the U.S. and others against al Qaeda for example), that have no clear boundaries either in time or space.

These more complicated environments ensure that the ICRC’s most sensitive and contested principle continues to be its commitment to neutrality. Closely tied to that principle is the ICRC assurance of confidentiality: what this means concretely is that while the ICRC has the right of unfettered access into all camps where POW’s are being held, and to make full and candid reports on the conditions they observe there, the ICRC is strictly prohibited from making those reports public as a way of pressuring improvements. They are bound to share the reports only with the governments or parties that run the camps. That is the other side of the agreement that ensures the access to the POW’s. (Sometimes, not surprisingly, those reports get leaked to the media, most probably by dissenting members of the affected governments: that happened during the French war in Algeria, and in the U.S. war against al Qaeda, when the ICRC report on conditions at Guantanamo were leaked to a journalist.)

This commitment to confidentiality, as a price for access, has always been problematic. In fact, Dunant wrote to a fellow member of the ICRC: “The duty of the International Committee, whose opinion has so much significance and influence, is to know and then to utter the whole truth, to publish this truth in all its good or evil, to set the facts straight and to stigmatize every kind of hateful occurrence.” But, eager to ensure access to the prisons where POW’s languish, sometimes for years, the ICRC has pretty much held fast to the principle of confidentiality.

The mention of POW’s languishing for years brings up a new aspect in warfare owing to the advent of the non-state actors like al Qaeda. Accepted international law holds that when enemy soldiers are picked up on the battlefield, they are POWs, and must be safeguarded and treated humanely, and subsequently released at the end of hostilities. The only exception occurs when the capturing country has substantial evidence that the captive has committed war crimes, in which case it’s the responsibility of the holding power to subject the accused to that country’s legal system, with all its protections.

Non-State Combatants Complicate Picture

Since the attacks on 9/11 2001, the U.S. has asserted its need for another category, that of “unlawful combatants.” This category of POW’s are not entitled to the usual protections either of the rules pertaining to the treatment of POW’s, or those of the criminal justice system. This has become a very widely publicized and very contentious issue.

Yet, even if they were declared POW’s in the usual sense, how could the U.S. comply with the provision that POW’s should be released at the end of hostilities since it seems that the war on terror is essentially endless? It’s hard to see a simple solution to this challenge.

And there are other complexities. For example, states that fight wars increasingly look for ways to use peaceful means, including humanitarian initiatives like building schools and hospitals, in their efforts to defeat the enemy by “winning hearts and minds.” The enemy, however, will understandably fight those efforts as it would fight guns and artillery. But it can be difficult if not impossible to distinguish which humanitarian efforts are being carried out by truly neutral humanitarian organizations, and which by the opposing army vying for the support of the population. This makes life not only more complex, but also more dangerous for the ICRC.

The efforts of the ICRC and other NGO’s can turn out not to be neutral at all, but, in fact, show favor to one side or the other, albeit inadvertently. This was the case in the genocidal war in Rwanda during the mid 1990’s, as the RPF Army, led by today’s President Paul Kagame, swept in to defeat the genocidal Rwandan regime. Soon great masses of refugees poured out of Rwanda into Zaire, where they received not only the lion’s share of global publicity, but also of humanitarian care. The problem was that most of the refugees tugging at the world’s heart strings were themselves either the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, or the bystanders. In this case, the commitment to neutrality meant offering support and succor, on the ground, to those who had committed genocide.

Medecins Sans Frontieres Offers Different Model

A similar turn of events in Ethiopia caused one of the ICRC’s employees, Bernard Kouchner, to quit the Committee and form “Medecins Sans Frontieres” (“Doctors Without Borders,” or MSF) which would never refuse to take political positions in conflicts, and would publicly denounce any predations it found. As Beat Schweizer, Deputy Director-General at the ICRC has pointed out, MSF’s “idea of not only alleviating the suffering but also addressing its root cause by denouncing oppression and injustice, and thus creating a momentum for political change, definitely had something convincing.” But as Schweizer goes on to point out, “the two components of MSF’s slogan, “Soigner et temoigner”, (“care for and bear witness”) might in many cases be mutually exclusive. Here, too, there are no simple and clear cut solutions.

In sum, while the ICRC holds to its founding principle, it does so in a world of complexity beyond anything the founders could have imagined. Marx once famously said that if Napoleon had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him. It is tempting to say that if today’s ICRC did not already exist, it would be impossible to invent it. But because it does exist, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people are still alive today who wouldn’t otherwise be.

Robert Steck is an independent consultant, writer and occasional philosophy professor. He is a frequent contributor to European Affairs.