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 MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res, which also has a headquarters in Geneva.