The ICRC: Neutral in a harsh world

2013-02-11 09:55
An Afghan child who has lost his legs in a land mine explosion in Bagram District is attended by a doctor at The International Red Cross Centre (ICRC) in Kabul. (Jawad Jalali, AFP)

An Afghan child who has lost his legs in a land mine explosion in Bagram District is attended by a doctor at The International Red Cross Centre (ICRC) in Kabul. (Jawad Jalali, AFP)

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Geneva - Founded to care for victims of war, the International Committee of the Red Cross has faced a tough task, sometimes been found wanting, but has always known how to adapt to shifting challenges.

The Swiss-based ICRC marks its 150th anniversary on 17 February, making it the world's oldest humanitarian organisation still in existence.

Historians say that the reasons for that longevity are rooted in rules put in place by the Swiss quintet who created it in 1863: the philanthropist Henry Dunant, lawyer Gustave Moynier, physicians Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir, and general Guillaume-Henri Dufour.

Shocked by the fate of the wounded at the 1859 Battle of Solferino between French and Austrian troops in northern Italy, Dunant had launched a campaign to set up international rules on caring for wounded soldiers, notably prisoners.

According to Daniel Palmieri, in charge of the ICRC's archives at its Geneva headquarters, the organisation created in 1863 was unlike other charities that existed at the time.

Palmieri pointed to its "universal dimension" - pushing for equal treatment regardless of a soldiers' uniform.

First international humanitarian law

The idea of neutrality was a bedrock of Swiss foreign policy.

The concept of non-partisan care rapidly won international support, and the First Geneva Convention was signed by 12 nations on 22 August 1864.

It was the world's first international humanitarian law, and a cornerstone for a raft of accords that were piloted by the ICRC.

The organisation's goal was to help the law evolve to keep up with the changing character of conflict, while guarding its autonomy of action.

In 1914, World War I marked a turning point for the ICRC, according to Palmieri.

"Two months after the start of hostilities, the ICRC's staff had grown from a dozen to 120," he said.

Breaking tradition

By the end of the year, 1 200 people were involved in caring for prisoners of war, and the ICRC's first "delegations" outside Switzerland had been set up.

The organisation also broke with its traditional of only employing Swiss staff, though the longstanding rule that its steering committee only have Swiss members remains in place to this day.

"The conflict forced the ICRC to take into account new combat methods such as gas, and new forms of violence such as civil wars, revolutions and uprisings, as well as new categories of victims, such as political prisoners, civilians in occupied territories, hostage, the disappeared, and refugees," said Palmieri.

In the wake of World War I, the ICRC lost ground to the League of Red Cross Societies, created in 1919 at the behest of the American Red Cross and swiftly joined by counterparts from Britain, France, Japan and Italy.

"There was a kind of Red Cross war, with the Geneva David finally beating the Anglo-Saxon Goliath," said Palmieri.

The situation was repeated after World War II, when the Swedish Red Cross pushed for full internationalisation of the ICRC, until the Cold War set things in stone.

World War II marked a massive leap forward in size, means and methods, but also saw one of the darkest chapters in ICRC history as its quest to remain neutral led it to stay silent about Nazi German concentration camps.

Prisoner of tradition

It took decades for the organisation to finally digest that era.

In 2002, the ICRC's director of international law, Francois Bugion, acknowledged that World War II had marked a "painful failure" on its part.

"The ICRC remained a prisoner of its traditional methods of operation and didn't measure - or did not want to measure - the full impact of what was happening. It didn't know how to deal with that by switching priority and taking steps and risks as required by the situation," Bugion said at the time.

The ICRC had considered a public calling to account of the Nazis in 1942. It held off in part because it felt it would have little impact, but also to avoid creating problems for neutral Switzerland.

In the ensuing decades, the ICRC decided to recraft its relationship with its host nation in order to better protect its own independence, said Bugion.

That led to a 1991 deal under which Switzerland granted it the same kind of diplomatic immunity enjoyed by bodies such as the United Nations agencies based in Geneva.

Almost bankrupt after World War II, today's ICRC employs over 12 000 people, mostly non-Swiss, around the world and has a budget of $1.2bn.

- SAPA

Read more on:    icrc  |  switzerland  |  nazis
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