The Red Cross Crossroad

Imprimer

A recent interview in the Tribune de Genève with the director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Yves Daccord, and a letter/response from a former ICRC delegate, Thierry Germond, represent the tip of the iceberg of a crisis at the ICRC and within the humanitarian community. While a superficial reading of the arguments could be summarized as “tradition vs. change,” there is much more below the surface. 

The focus of the controversy revolves around the ICRC’s President Peter Maurer’s membership on the Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The arguments for Maurer’s membership – access to decision-makers and potential donors – have been contrasted with the impartial, independent and neutral history of the Red Cross’ humanitarianism. Although ICRC founder Henry Dunant was searching for financial backing when he came upon the Battle of Solférino in 1859, humanitarianism has always prioritized the separation of the humanitarian from business and politics. Dunant never found sponsors, but he did start an organization that has won three Nobel Peace Prizes.
Has Maurer’s membership sullied the ICRC’s image and put in peril the organization’s reputation? An article in Le Monde complements the Daccord interview and Germond’s response and highlights the importance of the controversy. The issue has even been raised in the Swiss parliament.
The ICRC has a double mandate; to develop humanitarian law and make sure it is respected (“respecter et faire respecter”), and to have access to victims of war and other situations of armed violence.
During the Abu Ghraib crisis of 2003, when revelations came to light of torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq by American soldiers, the Red Cross was confronted with the dilemma of going public or not. A heated internal debate ensued. When asked why the ICRC chose to remain silent, the then ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said that going public would have threatened the organization’s access. For him, access to the wounded and prisoners was more important than a public condemnation. For Kellenberger, access trumped “respecter et faire respecter.”
But to remain silent during situations of obvious abuse erodes the moral authority of the organization. Other examples of its silence would be during World War II or currently the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the wearing of a Red Cross jacket by a liberator of Ingrid Betancourt in Colombia, the purposeful shooting of political protesters with live ammunition in Gaza or the deliberate bombing of schools and hospitals.
Furthermore, the ICRC is not a development institution, nor is it a conflict resolution mediator. Its reputation is based on its independence, impartiality and neutrality in helping victims during armed conflicts. It is that reputation which makes it unique. 
To be an ICRC delegate or humanitarian is to accept the fact that there will always be violence and wars. That is the tragic sense of humanitarianism. The original ICRC founders understood that there would be no perpetual peace. Since 1864, various treaties and protocols have elaborated more sophisticated humanitarian norms, but there has never been an illusion that the ICRC needed an exit strategy. It has a humanitarian niche unlike any other organization.
The world is looking for moral compasses. The outbreak of terrorist activities has called into question the basic norms that have been traditionally accepted by the international community. There needs to be an update of those norms to adapt to new situations such as cyberwarfare, drones and urban violence. The nature of wars and violence have evolved since the first meeting of Dunant, Louis Appia, Gustave Moynier, General Dufour and Theodor Maunoir in the Old Town of Geneva and the signing of the first humane rules of war in 1864 in the Geneva Town Hall.   
So the debate between Daccord and Germond is not only about Peter Maurer’s membership in the WEF or “tradition vs. change.” The debate is about the very nature of humanitarianism. Dunant wrote: “… in an age when we hear so much of progress and civilization, is it not a matter of urgency, since unhappily we cannot always avoid wars, to press forward in a human and truly civilized spirit the attempt to prevent, or at least alleviate, the horrors of war?’’ That foundation of humanitarianism can never change.
The World Economic Forum touts itself as “an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” Shaping “global, regional and industrial agendas” is a far cry from “preventing or alleviating the horrors of war.” Peter Maurer’s membership in the WEF’s Foundation Board calls into question the ICRC’s humanitarian mandate and the essential separation of the humanitarian from business and politics.

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Commentaires

  • Did Red-Cross cared when Abu-Ghraib was under control of Saddam Hussein ?

    Hundred of thousands innocents were tortured to death in Abu-Ghraib under the Baas régime !

  • "Hundred of thousands innocents were tortured to death in Abu-Ghraib under the Baas régime !"
    Des preuves, Corto, des preuves ! Les mêmes que celles de Dick Cheney sur les armes de destruction massive ? Le bon papa Saddam était un dirigeant arabe comme ils le sont tous, absolument tous. Il a sûrement fait dézinguer quelques opposants de ci de là, comme tous les autres. Tiens, au hasard, tu n'as pas entendu parler de l'affaire Kashoggi ? Tu crois que les USA vont lancer une guerre contre le KSA pour ça ? Non, hein ? Pour les USA, il y a les bons dirigeants et les mauvais dirigeants. Tous peuvent tuer, torturer et faire les pires misères à leur peuple, là n'est pas la question. Les mauvais dirigeants sont simplement ceux qui nuisent aux intérêts américains, c'est tout.

  • Bravo pour cette analyse. Aussi synthétique que visionnaire.

  • Excellent! Bravo. Cornelio

  • Votre analyse vient à point nommé. Avec le sérieux et la profondeur qui caractérisent vos propos, vous tracez la voie à suivre pour conclure un débat certes nécessaire, mais stérile aussi longtemps que l'essentiel n'aura pas été sauvegardé et mis en exergue, comme vous le faites si bien dans le dernier paragraphe de votre papier "The Red Cross at Crossroads". Un carrefour qui peut nous sortir de l'impasse. Un grand merci.

  • "When asked why the ICRC chose to remain silent, the then ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said that going public would have threatened the organization’s access. For him, access to the wounded and prisoners was more important than a public condemnation. For Kellenberger, access trumped “respecter et faire respecter.”
    But to remain silent during situations of obvious abuse erodes the moral authority of the organization. Other examples of its silence would be during World War II or currently the use of chemical weapons in Syria".

    Ce n'est pas la doctrine de Jakob Kellenberger, c'est le coeur même de la doctrine du CICR. Les victimes d'abord, la publicité n'importe pas. L'exact contraire de MSF et de ses fondateurs à grande gueule et sac de riz sur l'épaule, enfin, quand il y a des journalistes...
    La question de la WW II est trop vaste pour être traitée ici, mais il suffit de se demander ce que le CICR aurait pu faire mieux face au monstre nazi. Les dénoncer ? A qui, à Staline ? Ridicule...
    Les attaques au gaz en Syrie : personne ne peut prétendre ici savoir si elles sont le fait de l'armée syrienne régulière ou de ses opposants.

  • Dear Daniel,

    Many thanks !

    This debate is of the utmost importance for the survival of the ICRC's unique and essential mandate which you recall quite rightly: "... to alleviate the horrors of war".

    The victims of armed conflicts will sadly continue to need for a very long time this truly neutral, independant, efficient and respected organization. And the lives of ICRC delegates as well as that of the many red cross volunteers's who work hard to protect and assist them must not be put at risk by the hazardous adventurism of a Committee and its President who seem to have lost the sense of responsability of their core mission.

    I hope that many more respected voices like yours will join in raising the attention of those, politicians (Swiss government !) and opinion makers who can and MUST intervene with determination to put an end to this ambiguous and dangerous slip !

    Yours,
    Francis

  • Thanks for your article that well frames the issue at stake. Former ICRC delegate for 32 years (1984-2016), I belong to a group of former delegates who openly criticize for the past four years the new posture adopted by the ICRC under the leadership of Peter Maurer. We flatly reject the point that we do not see that the world has changed, that we have a conservative and defensive position. We challenge the ICRC view that the present conflicts have reached a complexity never seen before as well as the alleged point that the number of victims has never been so high in modern history. We deeply regret that Peter Maurer and "his" Committee alter the very essence of this unique humanitarian organization in manipulating its " DNA" and engaging the ICRC in hazardous experiments in the name of "innovation", loosing its compass and weakening its humanitarian authority. As you righly state, this is sadly only the tip of the iceberg...

  • C'est la fin de l'horrible époque des bobos !

  • Le monde d'hier et son idéologie néo-libérale se défait devant nos yeux. Elle a affecté notre noble institution dans son discours, son management. La situation dénoncée ici est de nature à questionner sa neutralité et indépendance.... Les défenseurs rigoureux et infatigables de son intégrité, de ses principes fondamentaux au fil des décennies sont les vigies doivent prévaloir. Le monde a besoin d'un CICR indépendant.

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