The ICRC and neutrality


in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Law, Politics, Security

 Two-faced graffiti on a bridge

I am still in the process of reading Michael Ignatieff’s The Warrior’s Honour, written when he still had the kind of freedom of speech that puts academics at an advantage relative to politicians. One situation described therein does a good job of encapsulating the complexities involved in trying to mitigate the savagery of contemporary war.

It concerns the choices made the the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during and after the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. The ICRC is a unique institution, legally mandated to implement the Geneva Conventions. A key element of that arrangement is neutrality; the ICRC does not distinguish between good wars and bad wars, nor between aggressors and victims. By not doing so, it maintains the kind of access that other organizations are denied.

In the wake of the Yugoslav wars, the ICRC had the best records on who was massacred, where, when, and by who. Such records would have aided the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in seeking to prosecute those responsible. The ICRC refused to provide the records, arguing that if the combatants had thought that ICRC records might eventually be used in war crimes trials, they would not have permitted the ICRC to provide the kind of aid it was able to.

The neutrality of the ICRC was subsequently rewarded, when they ended up being the only aid organization not expelled from Bosnia during the Croat-Muslim offensive against Serbs. Ironically, this included the single greatest instance of ethnic cleansing: a term generally associated with actions Serbian forces had undertaken previously, including by using released and trained prisoners as unofficial proxies for acts that violated the Geneva Conventions.

As this example illustrates, contemporary conflicts are often deeply morally ambiguous, on everything from the role of child soldiers to whether it is truly possible for aid organizations to be impartial. To me, there seems to be considerable importance to maintaining an organization like the ICRC, simply because it can get the kind of access that others cannot. When it comes to more judgmental organizations, there are plenty to choose from, including Médecins Sans Frontières, which also has a headquarters in Geneva.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. September 14, 2009 at 3:54 pm

The difficulty of remaining neutral while providing is especially acute when it comes to ethnic cleansing. Providing food and shelter to people displaced for ethnic reasons can assist the people who are trying to relocate them, by helping to make the fact of their relocation permanent.

In all ethnic conflicts involving aid, some will also get funnelled towards belligerent groups, no matter how careful the administering agencies are.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 4:02 pm

My friend Emily Paddon has done academic work on impartiality in contemporary warfare.

I will try to find some of her work online, to link.

Here is one snippet.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Her thesis:

Problems of impartiality in UN-authorized military operations with humanitarian purposes

* Further information: Emily Paddon.

* Publisher: Thesis (M.Phil.)–University of Oxford, 2007.

* Creation Date: 2007

* Format: 109 leaves ; 31 cm.

* Language: English

* Author: Emily Paddon 1982- ;

* University of Oxford. Dept. of Politics and International Relations. ; University of Oxford. Division of Social Sciences. ; St. Antony’s College (University of Oxford). ;

* Subjects: United Nations — Peacekeeping forces ; United Nations — Military policy ; Conflict management ; Fairness ; Intervention (International law) ; Peacekeeping forces ;

Tristan September 14, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I don’t understand how they are neutral – their website says that their organization:

“endeavours to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles.”

Also, they seem to be pro-geneva convention – which logically entails they are anti-contravening the geneva convention.

In what sense are they neutral?

. September 14, 2009 at 7:26 pm

“To this day, neutrality remains the core of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s moral politics. It makes no distinction between good wars and bad, between just and unjust causes, or even between aggressors and innocents. Its ethic is simple: to reach the victims wherever they are and to teach warriors to fight by the rules.”

The Warrior’s Honour. p. 114 (paperback)

. September 14, 2009 at 7:27 pm

International Committee of the Red Cross >> Characteristics

Milan September 14, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Another major ethical dilemma for the ICRC was whether to publish what they knew about the death camps during WWII. In the end, they did not do so publicly, for fear that doing so would compromise their ability to fulfill their mandate in later circumstances.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Also, they seem to be pro-geneva convention – which logically entails they are anti-contravening the geneva convention.

They aren’t just pro Geneva Convention. The Geneva Conventions are their DNA:

Legal status

Like the Holy See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the ICRC is a rare example of a non-governmental sovereign entity. It is the only institution explicitly named under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as a controlling authority. The legal mandate of the ICRC stems from the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as its own Statutes. The ICRC has expanded from its grounding in international law to undertake tasks that are not specifically mandated by law, such as visiting political prisoners outside of conflict and providing relief in natural disasters.

Contrary to popular belief, the ICRC is not a non-governmental organization in the most common sense of the term, nor is it an inter-state organization, such as the United Nations. Because it limits its membership to Swiss nationals only, and because new members are selected by the Committee itself (a process called cooptation), it does not have a policy of open and unrestricted membership for individuals like other legally defined NGOs. However, since the early 1990s, the ICRC employs persons from all over the world to serve in its field mission and at Headquarters. In 2007, almost half of ICRC staff was non-Swiss. The ICRC has special privileges and legal immunities in many countries, based on national law in these countries, based on agreements between the ICRC and the respective governments, or, in some cases, based on international jurisprudence (such as the right of ICRC delegates not to bear witness in front of international tribunals).

According to Swiss law, the ICRC is defined as a private association. However, the ICRC has enjoyed de facto sovereignty and immunity within the territory of Switzerland for many years. On March 19, 1993, a legal foundation for this status was created by a formal agreement between the Swiss government and the ICRC. This agreement protects the full sanctity of all ICRC property in Switzerland including its headquarters and archive, grants members and staff legal immunity, exempts the ICRC from all taxes and fees, guarantees the protected and duty-free transfer of goods, services, and money, provides the ICRC with secure communication privileges at the same level as foreign embassies, and simplifies Committee travel in and out of Switzerland.

Tristan September 14, 2009 at 9:00 pm

You didn’t address my initial point.

“endeavours to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles.”

isn’t neutral. At best then, we can say this organization is neutral for the sake of being partisan.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 9:10 pm

They are neutral in terms of armed forces. They don’t discriminate in favour of one armed group rather than another.

What they mean by neutrality is clearly spelled out in the above, though I am looking forward to reading Emily Paddon’s thesis, which covers some of the complexities of it all.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 9:13 pm

‘Neutral’ doesn’t mean apathetic and indifferent. It means you apply your principles equally to everyone.

Tristan September 14, 2009 at 9:41 pm

“‘Neutral’ doesn’t mean apathetic and indifferent. It means you apply your principles equally to everyone.”

I don’t think that is right. What if the principle requires you to treat parties differently? Or, is neutrality applying principles equally to everyone when the principle’s application is not dependent on any properties of the parties to which it is applied?

Milan September 14, 2009 at 9:44 pm

These are some of the kinds of questions Ignatieff and my friend Emily Paddon are trying to address.

What does it mean to be neutral, and to try to uphold the laws of war, in the kinds of wars that happen now? Ethnic wars, wars where governments release prisoners to perform plausibly deniable militia actions…

It’s not simple.

Tristan September 14, 2009 at 10:03 pm

One thing clear is that “neutrality” can mean various things in various contexts.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 10:25 pm

True, though the ICRC meaning of the term has real importance, both for international law and for the millions of people who have been affected by their actions.

. September 17, 2009 at 11:03 am

Nine Somalia peacekeers killed in suicide attack

(AFP) – 5 hours ago

MOGADISHU — Two powerful explosions ripped through the headquarters of African Union peacekeepers in Somalia Thursday, killing nine soldiers including the Burundian deputy commander in a twin suicide attack by Islamist rebels.

“At least two bombs” exploded at the force headquarters in a fortified compound at Mogadishu airport, the AU said in a statement which condemned what it called a “barbaric attack” in which at least 15 other soldiers were wounded.

“Among those who died is the AMISOM deputy commander Major General Juvenal Niyonguruza,” who was about to complete his tour of duty in Somalia, Ugandan army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Felix Kulayigye said.

The army said the force commander, Ugandan General Nathan Mugisha, was among the wounded in the twin attack, which was claimed by hardline Shebab rebels. Kulayigye said the injuries to Mugisha, who took up his post only last month, were minor.

. October 5, 2009 at 10:34 am

Suicide bomb hits UN in Pakistan

A suicide bomber dressed in military uniform has attacked the UN World Food Programme offices in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, killing five people.

Four of the dead are Pakistanis, the fifth is an Iraqi. The bomber died too.

It is unclear who is responsible but suspicion will fall on the Pakistani Taliban, correspondents say.

They promised revenge for the killing of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in August and have been behind a series of recent attacks.

Last week, at least 16 people died in two suicide car bomb attacks in north-western Pakistan.

. October 8, 2009 at 11:56 am

Biting the U.N. That Feeds
The madness of bombing a World Food Program office.
By Anna Husarska and Mike Young
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009, at 1:45 PM ET

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—It is hard to imagine a more bestial act. Even on the scale of brutality and disregard for human lives prevalent in the conflict raging across Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan, the suicide bomber who struck the Islamabad office of the World Food Program, the United Nations’ food agency, deserves the label abhorrent. Five people are dead at the time of writing—including two Pakistani women, one who greeted visitors to the compound and one who helped organize food-aid convoys, and an Iraqi man who helped to manage the WFP’s operation in Pakistan. Others are badly injured.

All this pointless carnage was produced by a person who was almost certainly related to someone who depends on food aid from WFP.

Given the dramatic situation of millions of Pakistanis who were, or still are, displaced by military operations against the Taliban in places like Swat, Dir, Buner, Bajaur, and Mohmand, hundreds of thousands have been, or are, relying on the WFP to ensure their families don’t go hungry. Pakistani families are generous and extended, so the bomber undoubtedly has peaceable relatives kept alive by the WFP.

. October 26, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Deliver to: David Rohde, c/o the Taliban, South Waziristan
How does the Red Cross send letters to hostages?
By Brian Palmer
Posted Friday, Oct. 23, 2009, at 2:55 PM ET

With a two-page form. For the last nine decades, the International Committee of the Red Cross has hand-delivered messages to hostages, detainees, soldiers, and civilians living in war zones using an official form (PDF). (To get one, the family of a hostage can contact their national Red Cross or Red Crescent society.) On the front of the first page, senders must fill out permanent contact information, date of birth, and parents’ full names for both themselves and the recipient. On the back, they write out a personal message by hand, so the hostage knows it’s from his family. There are 18 lines, or enough space for about 300 words, if you’re writing very small. The author then indicates his relationship to the hostage at the bottom of the page, and signs and dates the form. A second page is left blank, for a reply from the captive that will also serve as proof of delivery. The two pages are joined along a perforated line, so the hostage can separate the original letter from the response. (Hostages have emerged from captivity with a treasured stack of Red Cross Page One’s.) The form is never sealed in an envelope, since the captors will be reviewing it for ideological messages or indications of espionage anyway. According to the form, only “family and/or private news” is allowed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva takes the message from the national society and attempts to deliver it to the hostage using its network of contacts. The organization knows people inside nearly every insurgency and terrorist group you can name, and communications often occur at a very high level.

. January 12, 2010 at 6:30 pm

The Red Cross movement
How much evil can you not see?

Dec 10th 2009 | NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
Impartiality is still the best policy, a giant humanitarian network says

Still, veterans of the Red Cross movement can take quiet satisfaction in the fact that the more militant brand of NGO, including MSF itself, has moved closer to the Red Cross ethos of political caution. MSF learned some hard lessons during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda: it was forced to pool its efforts with the Red Cross and both bodies saw many staff members killed.

While the MSF’s early rhetoric of political engagement has been tempered by reality, the Red Cross’s practice of discreet silence, even in the face of terrible atrocities, has also become harder to maintain. As the head of MSF, Christophe Fournier, points out, there is now an almost uncontrollable information flow even in the world’s direst backwaters. That makes a “see no evil” policy tougher; it also complicates life for noisy advocates.

. October 13, 2016 at 12:32 am

The war on Syria’s doctors
The ultimate barbarity
Dr Assad turns Syria’s hospitals into death traps as part of a “kneel or starve” policy

In the euphemistic lexicon of war, these attacks are known as “double-tap” or “triple-tap” strikes. This devastating tactic, used to hit schools, bakeries and marketplaces, has become a common feature of the Syrian government’s air campaign.

It has also turned Syria’s hospitals into death traps. Barrel bombs, artillery and air strikes have struck more than 265 medical facilities since the start of the war. Last month, possibly the deadliest since the war began, bombs and missiles hit a hospital or field clinic every 17 hours. Experts reckon that no previous war has witnessed such widespread, systematic targeting of hospitals and medical workers.

The destruction of Syria’s once sophisticated health system has forced doctors and medical charities to come up with innovative ways to escape the daily bombardment. Western-funded aid agencies have built a handful of secret hospitals underground. Others have tunnelled into the side of a mountain to build wards inside caves. But the costs are prohibitive.

The legacy of the war and the regime’s unrelenting attacks on health facilities and medical workers could have broader repercussions. The international community’s failure to stop the attacks has led to fears that the deliberate targeting of medical facilities will become the new norm in future wars. “The laws of war were drafted to protect civilians, to make war less hellish. These laws are being eroded in Syria,” says Widney Brown of Physicians for Human Rights. “When no one enforces these laws, when those who commit war crimes aren’t held to account, then what message does that send?”

. February 8, 2017 at 1:39 pm

Six Afghan Red Cross aid workers have been killed in an ambush in the country’s north while travelling to a remote area to deliver humanitarian aid.

Three vehicles carrying eight International Committee of the Red Cross employees were travelling through Dasht-e Leili, a desert in Jowzjan province, when they came under fire, according to the provincial governor, Lotfullah Azizi. Three drivers and three other personnel were killed, and two are missing.

ICRC in Afghanistan confirmed the killings and said it was putting its activities across the country on hold while it assessed what had happened.

Its director-general, Yves Daccord, described the incident as “the worst attack against us since 20 years. We are all outraged and so sad.”

. February 8, 2017 at 1:40 pm

“ICRC, which enjoys special protection under the Geneva Conventions, has traditionally not come under attack in Afghanistan, apart from the killing of an Italian engineer in 2002. Its reputation of impartiality has allowed the group to work in areas inaccessible to others.

In 2012, the Afghan Taliban even issued a statement in support of ICRC after one of its aid workers was killed in Pakistan, commending ICRC for “truly serving the people”.

More recently, however, as aid workers have increasingly become targets in Afghanistan, ICRC has also suffered. In 2013, suicide bombers attacked an ICRC compound in Jalalabad, killing a guard and wounding another employee. In December, a Spanish employee was abducted in Kunduz. He was freed last month.”

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