The Silent Failure of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine

Photograph Source: Torbjorn Toby Jorgensen – CC BY-SA 2.0

At the Group of Twenty meeting in Bali, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky castigated the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “Add to that [11,000 children who were forcibly deported to Russia] hundreds of thousands of deported adults, and you can see what I want to point out that we have not found support in the International Committee of the Red Cross,” he said by video conference. “We do not see that they are fully fighting for access to the camps where Ukrainian prisoners and political prisoners are held, or that they are helping to find deported Ukrainians,” he further criticized.

Zelensky finished this part of his speech with a most powerful indictment against the institution legally and morally responsible for assuring respect for international humanitarian law (IHL): “And such self-elimination is the self-destruction of the Red Cross as an organization that was once respected.”

“Self-destruction” of the “once respected” ICRC? Zelensky’s accusations conflated Russia’s violations of humanitarian law with the role of the ICRC as the guarantor of IHL. The ICRC’s silence in the face of egregious violations has once more called into question the institution’s insistence on discretion and confidentiality.

Why has the ICRC not been more vocal about grave human rights and IHL violations in Ukraine?

For background: When countries sign the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of humanitarian law, they pledge to “Respect and Enforce” standards for how wars are conducted. Today, the four 1949 Conventions have been ratified by 196 states, including all United Nations member states. The USSR ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1954.

The Russians use the unsubstantiated excuse of fighting against an “existential threat” in self-defense as their justification for their aggression. In addition to violating universally accepted norms of justifying going to war – jus ad bellum – the Russian Federation continues to violate basic rules of human rights in fighting the war – jus in bello. A report by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights covering the period 1 February 2022 to 31 July 2022, based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, “verified allegations of arbitrary deprivation of life, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment, and conflict-related sexual violence.” Ukraine has also been accused of serious human rights violations.

Russia’s deliberate and systematic destruction of Ukraine’s water and electricity infrastructure, their attacks on hospitals and schools that have killed civilians are blatant examples of human rights and IHL violations. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is a basic principle of international humanitarian law as is the distinction between military and non-military targets.

Zelensky’s criticism of the ICRC relates to the organization’s lack of determination to visit Ukrainian military prisoners. The Russians have not allowed access to captured Ukrainians. In response, Zelensky has stopped ICRC access to Russian prisoners held by Ukraine. “Prisoners of war on both sides have the right to visits,” said a spokesperson for the ICRC, “and their families have the right to receive news of them.”

The ICRC, in short, has not been able to enforce norms as they are being transgressed. It does not have sanction power like the World Trade Organization. It does, however, have moral authority. The ICRC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944 and 1963. That moral authority can be used in discreet negotiations or public condemnation. Since discreet negotiations have yielded no positive results, why has the ICRC not been vocal in criticizing Russia or Ukraine?

The ICRC’s prudence in not going public has unfortunate precedents such as its silence about the Holocaust during World War II or about the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in the early stages of the Iraq war. The ICRC can, when faced with repeated violations go public in the interest of the victims. It did go public about violations by Israel in the Occupied Territories or by different groups during the war in Yugoslavia. When bilateral negotiations fail, it can name and shame.

If you think naming and shaming is not important, notice how China lobbied to convince a majority of members of the UN Human Rights Council not to follow-up on the initial report on the repression of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province. Countries do not like to be called out by respected international institutions such as the Red Cross.

Why hasn’t the ICRC been more vocal now? During revelations about the illegal treatment of prisoners by American forces at Abu Ghraib, the then president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, defended the silence by emphasizing how going public would hamper the Red Cross’s access to prisoners in other countries. Amid strong internal debate, Kellenberger chose silence over public condemnation, access over naming and shaming.

The ICRC policy of silence appears to continue in the face of serious violations in Ukraine. In her first public statements in Geneva on November 28, the new ICRC President Marion Spoljaric said: “Giving up our confidentiality will reduce our work in other places. We are not an advocacy group,” she stated. “Working through our mode of confidentiality, ICRC can support states to hold those who commit international crimes accountable, ensuring that all parties to the conflict are aware of their obligation to investigate and prosecute.” Like Kellenberger’s justification for silence in 2003, she said: “I am afraid that if we stop our confidentiality, it will never come back.”

As a veteran ICRC delegate with over 30 years in the field whispered to me while listening to Ms. Spoljaric’s emphasis on confidentiality: “It is very sad that the ICRC does not use all the means it has to act. The silence is incomprehensible.”

The ICRC’s silence is not helping the innocent victims or respect for humanitarian law. It is an institutional and humanitarian failure.

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