The Red Cross in Crisis: What Would Henry Dunant Say?

With the outbreak of civil war in Sudan, the continuing conflict between Ukraine and Russia and at least twenty-five other conflicts worldwide according to the Council on Foreign Affairs Global Conflict Tracker, one would think the world’s leading humanitarian organization would be operating at full throttle. Instead, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is in full crisis. Significant budget cuts, laying off 1,800 staff now and possibly 3,000 later, closing 26 of its 350 offices worldwide and reducing its presence in several troubled areas has led to retrospection about its fundamental mission. The venerable Swiss institution is in a late adult identity crisis.

What would its principal founder, Henry Dunant, say about all this?

First, Henry would be surprised at the recent rapid growth of the organization he founded in 1863 with four colleagues (Louis Appia, Henry Dufour, Theodore Maunoir, and Gustave Moynier). The budget has expanded from 1.15 billion Swiss francs in 2012 ($1.27 billion) to 2.85 billion Swiss francs ($3.15 billion) in 2023. In the same period, the staff has grown from 15,600 to 22,600.

What were the causes of this expansion? The obvious answer would be more conflicts and greater humanitarian needs. According to ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric, there were 140 million people in need of urgent aid in 2013. Today, there are 340 million.

But the announced needs have not been covered by sufficient contributions. The projected budget for 2023 has been reduced from 2.85 billion francs to 2.4 billion because of donor reticence. The ICRC, which touts its independence from the Swiss government – although the official Red Cross emblem was designed as the inverse of the Swiss flag – has been forced to go to Bern to ask the Swiss Confederation for more money.

Henry would probably be intrigued, perhaps confused, or even annoyed at how the organization has evolved since its beginning. His original activities were heavily influenced by his upbringing during the religious Réveil (Awakening) Movement in 19th century Geneva. He was a most active member of a small group of devout young men which later developed into the worldwide Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

Dunant was not political. As he wrote in a letter in 1890, “I am a disciple of Christ as in the first century and nothing more.” After an epiphany walking in the Alps, he became a member of the Evangelical Society that was part of the Réveil Movement. The Movement’s followers believed in inspiration directly from God and were close to movements such as Transcendentalism in the United States. They had an apocalyptic vision of God directly involved in saving man without going to church or any other intermediary. There was certainly no real-world experience involving politics. Dunant’s sect “was essentially ‘anti-world,’” Alice Wemyss wrote in her history of the Revéil.

This religious background is crucial for understanding how Dunant developed his humanitarianism. For him, and for many years the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations assumed the separation of the humanitarian from the political. Traditionally, the political/humanitarian divide has been one of the foundations of international humanitarian law as well as of the ICRC. As the then ICRC President Cornelio Sommaruga stated in a 1992 address to the UN General Assembly: “Humanitarian endeavor and political action must go their separate ways if the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian work are not to be jeopardized…”

This separation is not evident. In order to protect civilians in the name of humanitarianism, political/military action is often needed. Today, a “humanitarian oasis” is hard to imagine as the line between civilians and combatants has become blurred. (A glaring failure of establishing a safe haven during conflict would be at Srebrenica during the Balkan Wars.) There are no longer separated battle fields and universally followed “chivalrous” codes of conduct.

The problem, therefore, is the relationship between the idealism of Dunant and his colleagues and politics. Some examples of this separation: The ICRC did not go public about the grave violations of humanitarian law during World War II. It has also prioritized access during the current Russian aggression instead of publicly denouncing flagrant violations of humanitarian law. In addition, ICRC delegates are not obliged to testify before tribunals or courts about what they observe. The ICRC’s legitimacy is based on its neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Its strict rules of confidentiality are apolitical, “anti-world.”

It was Dunant’s membership in the Geneva Evangelical Society that laid the foundation for the creation of the ICRC. Behind that evangelical background was an acceptance of battle, an acceptance of the inevitability of war. Caring for victims was always Dunant’s priority. As Eva Wortel wrote of Dunant and his moral stance: “Inspired by his understanding of Christianity…Dunant has a moral sense of the importance of human life…”

This is how Dunant described what he saw at the 1859 Battle of Solferino which inspired the creation of the ICRC: “The gracious and lovely young ladies of the aristocracy, made lovelier still by the exaltation of passionate enthusiasm, were no longer scattering rose-leaves from the beflagged balconies of sumptuous palaces to fall on glittering shoulder-straps…from their eyes now fell burning tears, born of painful emotion and compassion, which quickly turned to Christian devotion, patient and self-sacrificing…”

Dunant and his followers were part of a romantic, imagined community dedicated to protecting human life during war and other disasters. The cost/benefits of this otherworldly position can be argued. On the other hand, political humanitarianism can be too involved in this world at the risk of losing legitimacy. Dunant was not a problem solver in the current sense; his problem solving involved getting relief to victims, nothing more, nothing less. The basic mission of the ICRC has been to protect civilians, defend humanitarian law, take care of the wounded, and visit prisoners.

What is evident from even a brief analysis of the history of the ICRC is that stopping a conflict and/or trying to prevent future conflicts were not part of the ICRC’s mandate. Those who wish to follow the humanitarian principles Dunant and his colleagues founded must accept the situation on the ground as it is. The ICRC, throughout its history, has never been an advocacy or development organization.

Behind the current financial and human resources crisis at the ICRC are profound differences between classical humanitarians and the organization’s evolution. When the previous president, Peter Maurer, became a member of the board of the World Economic Forum in 2014, ICRC staff and former delegates complained that the ICRC’s neutrality was being jeopardised.  Under Maurer’s leadership (2012-2022), the ICRC emphasized social and economic development at the risk of de-emphasizing the fundamental mission of responding to humanitarian emergencies. The ICRC’s 2018 strategic plan outlined the need for change and rapid growth, continuing the trend away from Dunant’s principles.

Dissent by current and former staff has boiled over. Two-thousand five hundred employees addressed an open letter to the current ICRC director general, Robert Mardini, in March 2023, saying they were “dismayed by the brutal budget cuts.” They called for an international audit. Within the call for an audit, the employees also questioning the organization’s evolution. They asked for a medium and long-term strategic reorganisation.

Dunant and his colleagues created a niche for an independent, impartial organization to help civilians and soldiers be treated humanely in times of conflict. The ICRC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944, and 1963 for fulfilling that mission.

Some will insist that the current crisis is merely a financial difficulty which the ICRC is experiencing like so many other human rights and humanitarian organizations. But as a former senior ICRC official wrote me, “I challenge the fact it is a “financial crisis”. No, it is a moral and political crisis which concerns Bern, Geneva, and the main donors of the ICRC.” That is why a clear understanding of Dunant’s religious background and the origins of the ICRC are so pertinent.

Henry Dunant would not be pleased with the current ICRC. May his spirit accompany whoever does an eventual audit.

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