During a sparkling winter Saturday morning at the beginning of school holidays in Geneva, 70 people gathered last week in the Villa Moynier to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Speeches were given by the Mayor of Geneva, the Vice-President of the Red Cross, the former President; present were a former Conseiller d’Etat and other dignitaries. A plaque was unveiled in memory of Gustave Moynier. A conference was presented on the dangers to health and sanitary conditions during current conflicts. Statistics were given about medical personnel being attacked, hospitals being destroyed, those in need being denied assistance.
The concept of humanitarian space if not humanitarianism as such is being called into question 150 years after the founding of the Red Cross by five visionaries near the Cathedral of St. Pierre in the Old Town of Geneva.70 people gathered last week to pay their respects to 150 years of efforts by countless people to have some form of norms for and recognition of human dignity in the midst of war, that which is itself a denial of human dignity.
There was something unreal about the event. We could all have been on the ski slopes, at the Marché, some other place on vacation. But the date was important even if it fell on a Saturday at the beginning of a week’s holiday. February 9, 1863, is considered by some the beginning of the ICRC. 150 years ago, five men, inspired to some extent by the religious Revival Movement in Geneva, joined together to form an organization dedicated to helping the victims of conflict based on the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Idealistic, irrational, apolitical, they were able to create an organization dedicated to helping those in need, whatever their convictions, whatever political beliefs they might have.
How much has changed over 150 years! Wars are generally no longer declared. Demarcations between combatants and non-combatants have become blurred. Armies no longer meet on pre-arranged battle fields at pre-arranged times. Armed non-state actors are as important as government forces in many zones of conflict. Weapons now include drones and even cyber attacks. The Geneva Conventions strain at the seams to try to remain relevant to the evolving nature of war.
But the belief in humanitarianism remains as strong as it was 150 years ago. There are the new humanitarians who try to eradicate the scourge of war by preventive measures to stop violence before it begins. There are the traditional, classical humanitarians who recognize the inevitability of conflict, but remain committed to helping those in need. But whatever their differences, the new and classical humanitarians are dedicated to a cause in spite of the growing dangers, the growing non-respect of basic protection for victims as well as those trying to help the victims. The concept of humanitarianism is still alive in spite of the flagrant breaches we witness every day in Syria and other places.
There was something unreal about the event because there is something unreal about humanitarianism. Perhaps that is its strength. To believe that there can be some form of human dignity during conflict, that there can be some space – literal and figurative – to help those in need during combat is a normative ideal that surpasses the ugly reality of violent confrontation. To pay tribute to 150 years of the ICRC is to pay tribute to a wondrous idealism that luckily still exists despite the ravages of war that continue in so many different forms in so many different places. Idealism matters. It has and will continue to have a realistic impact.