The Red Cross Crossroad

The emblem of the International Committee of the Red Cross

A recent interview in a local Geneva newspaper 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.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.