International Committee of the Red Cross
International Committee of the Red Cross
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the founding agent of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, is registered under the laws of Switzerland, where it has its headquarters, as a private association. At the same time, it is recognized in public international law and has signed a headquarters agreement with the Swiss federal authorities as if it were an intergovernmental organization. Although its professional staff has been internationalized since the early 1990s, its top policy-making organ, variously called the Committee or the Assembly, remains all-Swiss. The mandate of the ICRC has always been, and remains, responding to the needs of victims of conflict. The organization started with a focus on wounded combatants in international war, then progressively added a concern for: detained combatants in international war, all persons adversely affected by internal or civil war, those detained by reason of "political" events in domestic troubles and tensions, civilians in international war and occupied territory, and all those adversely affected by indiscriminate or inhumane weapons. The ICRC seeks both to provide services in-country, and to develop legal and moral norms that facilitate its fieldwork.
In 1859 a Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, witnessed the Battle of Solferino in present-day northern Italy, then the site of clashing armies from the French and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Dunant was appalled at the lack of attention given to wounded soldiers. At that time European armies provided more veterinarians to care for horses than doctors and nurses to care for soldiers. Dunant not only set about caring for the wounded at Solferino, with the help of mostly female locals, but also returned to Geneva determined to find a more systematic remedy for the problem.
The Original Vision
By 1863 Dunant helped create what has become the ICRC. Originally composed of Dunant and four other male volunteers from the Protestant upper and middle classes of Geneva, the Committee initially adopted a two-track approach to help victims of war. It tried to see that "aid workers" were sent to the field to deal firsthand with primarily medical problems arising from war. It also sought to develop international humanitarian law to guarantee the protection of human dignity despite what states saw as military necessity. An early example of the pragmatic track was the dispatch of observers to the war in Schleswig-Holstein (1864). An early result of the second track was the 1864 Geneva Convention for Victims of War, a treaty that encouraged medical attention to war wounded and neutralized both the wounded and medical personnel. The pragmatic and normative tracks were intended to carve out a humanitarian space in the midst of conflict, to set limits on military and political necessity in order to preserve as much humanity and human dignity as states would allow. This two-track approach remains, even though the ICRC's scope of action has been expanded in terms of geography covered, conflicts addressed, and victims helped.
At first Dunant and his colleagues on the Committee thought it would be sufficient for them to help organize national aid societies for the pragmatic humanitarian work. They set about promoting, later recognizing, aid societies in various countries. Other dynamic personalities, such as Clara Barton in the United States and Florence Nightingale in the United Kingdom, were also intent on doing something about the human tragedy stemming from war, and they were responsible for the creation of the American and British Red Cross Societies, respectively. These societies, and others, were loosely linked to the ICRC in a growing network that focused first on medical assistance in war.
The Ottoman Empire, the remnant of which is present-day Turkey, was the first Muslim authority to become a party to the 1864 Geneva Convention and create an official aid society primarily for medical assistance in armed conflict. However, Ottoman officials insisted on using the emblem of the Red Crescent rather than the Red Cross. The ICRC, not anticipating subsequent controversies over proliferating emblems and trying to play down the role of religion (Dunant was an evangelical Christian), deferred to this Ottoman fait accompli. In the early twenty-first century there are more than 180 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. They have to be recognized by the ICRC, after meeting a set of conditions, including use of an emblem approved by states when meeting in diplomatic conference. States establish neutral emblems in war through treaty making.
By the 1870s Dunant had retired to the sidelines in the context of failed business ventures carrying the hint of scandal, something not tolerated in Calvinistic Geneva, and his leadership role was taken over by Gustave Moynier. Dunant was later "rehabilitated" and named a cowinner of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. But it was the cautious lawyer Moynier who, with considerable organizational skills, decisively shaped the early ICRC.
A New Vision
The Committee initially overestimated the appeal of international or universal humanitarianism and underestimated the power of nationalism. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 showed the limits of the original vision, as the French and Prussian aid societies helped only their conationals—and even that was not done very efficiently. Neutral, impartial, and universal humanitarianism, which means tending to victims of conflict without regard to nationality or other characteristics besides human need, was not much in evidence. The emerging Red Cross and Red Crescent movement was in considerable disarray at this time. The various national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies were being nationalized and militarized by their governments.
By World War I the ICRC decided that it must become more of an actor in the field, that Switzerland's permanent neutrality allowed a role for Swiss ICRC personnel that could not be matched by nationals of the fighting parties. If neutral humanitarianism was to survive, the ICRC would have to become more than a mailbox and far-off storage depot. World War I greatly affected the evolution of the organization. For all its brutality the war saw the emergence of the ICRC as a more widely known organization serving the victims of war. It developed a reputation for stellar work not so much in the medical field but as the neutral supervisor of conditions for prisoners of war (POWs).
The ICRC did not, however, play much of a role in the Armenian genocide that occurred in the Ottoman Empire between approximately 1890 and 1922. Historians have yet to establish the precise role of the ICRC in these events, but clearly the American Red Cross played a much more dynamic role in trying to respond to the killings in the 1890s. In 1915 and 1916 the ICRC may have contented itself with discreet overtures to Germany, the ally of the Ottoman Empire, whose personnel sometimes held key positions in the Ottoman military. At this time the ICRC was still defining its exact role as an actor in the field; remained a very small, amateurish, and inconsistent organization; and continued to focus primarily on the sick and wounded and detained combatants rather than civilians. The ICRC was more active on the Western Front, rather than on the Eastern Front and in the Ottoman Empire. To many observers it thus seemed that there was no official war between the empire and the Armenian people.
Despite its limitations the ICRC was awarded its first Nobel Peace Prize as an organization in 1917. Red Cross agencies were mentioned in the League of Nations Covenant, such was their prominence because of World War I. In 1929 the ICRC helped to develop a new Geneva Convention that legally protected prisoners of war, as well as revise the 1864 treaty (which had already been revised once in 1906). A pattern was emerging: first, pragmatic action, then legal codification of that humanitarian effort. This had been true from 1859 to 1864, and was again the case from 1914 through 1929.
During the years between the two world wars (1919–1939) the ICRC laid the foundations for later important developments. The ICRC was active in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, which contributed over time to the further development of international humanitarian law for internal armed conflict, often called civil war. The ICRC was also active in East Africa when Benito Mussolini's Italy invaded Abyssinia, present-day Ethiopia, setting the stage for the ICRC's long involvement in African affairs. In addition, it was involved in Russia's civil war, although the 1917 revolution led to very chilly relations between the new Soviet authorities and the ICRC. The ICRC was not only based in capitalist Switzerland, but also had a leadership hardly sympathetic to communism. The organization also undertook its first visits to political or security prisoners outside situations of war—in Hungary in 1918. The ICRC was much less involved in some other conflicts, for example, in East Asia in the 1930s when Japan invaded China.
Another mark against the ICRC was its failure to speak out when fascist Italy not only bombed clearly marked Red Cross medical vehicles and field hospitals in Abyssinia, but also used poison gas. Being that the ICRC had publicly protested the use of poison gas during World War I, questions arose about double standards and hidden agendas on the part of the organization. Leading ICRC officials like President Gustav Ador were known to have strong anticommunist sentiments. There is speculation that later key ICRC leaders, such as President Max Huber and Carl J. Burkhardt, shared certain views common in Europe at the time—namely, that the fascists, as bad as they might be, were still a barrier against the greater evil of communism. The ICRC's cautious approach toward Mussolini has yet to be definitively explained; other factors might have come into play.
The Revised Vision Debated
During these same interwar years the League of Red Cross Societies was created under the influence of an American Red Cross that had greatly developed during World War I. Once formed, the League (later renamed as the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) often competed with the ICRC for leadership of the international movement. Despite the ICRC's Nobel Peace Prize of 1917, the leadership of the American Red Cross regarded the Committee as too cautious, small, and stodgy to continue to play a central role in international affairs. Moreover, to this group's way of thinking, World War I was supposedly the war to end all wars, thus removing the need for an ICRC that focused on victims of war, and opening the door to a greater peacetime role for Red Cross actors—like the American Red Cross—that focused on natural disasters and various social programs within the nation. Nevertheless, the ICRC resisted this attempt to minimize or eliminate its role.
The advent of World War II found the ICRC in a very weakened state. The Committee was still very amateurish in its methods and led by individuals who were not always attentive to details or skilled in diplomacy. President Max Huber was in ill health and often away from Geneva. The professional staff was exceedingly small; the Committee relied heavily on the mobilization of volunteers. Despite these problems the ICRC achieved a great deal during World War II, mainly because of a paid staff that was temporarily expanded and the dedicated work of many volunteers. As in World War I, it supervised POW conditions. More so than in the Great War, it provided significant material assistance to devastated civilian populations. For example, working with the Swedish Red Cross and with the cooperation of the British navy, which had established a blockade, it did much for the civilian population in Greece under Nazi occupation. Although its activities were again more developed in the Western theater of military operations than in Asia, it again won a Nobel Peace Prize for its war-time efforts. The ICRC's role in the war, however, was clouded by controversy over whether it had been dynamic enough in responding to the German Holocaust against German Jews and other untermenchen, or subhumans, from Berlin's point of view. This controversy merits separate treatment and will be discussed below.
After World War II, as after World War I, there was an effort to transform the ICRC. This time the Swedish Red Cross, rather than the American Red Cross, led the charge. But efforts to internationalize the Committee, and by so doing create greater Swedish influence at the center of the movement, failed to carry the day. Eventually, the dangers of an internationalized but immobilized Committee during the cold war became clear. Moreover, the all-Swiss ICRC demonstrated its capabilities for neutral humanitarianism in places such as Palestine-Israel during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and then in Hungary in 1956 at the time of the Soviet invasion.
The ICRC also played a useful role in developing the four Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949 for victims of war, still the core of modern international humanitarian law. Again, the pattern was clear: The organization's pragmatic actions from 1939 through 1945 helped shape the further development of international humanitarian law.
The Revised Vision Consolidated
By the 1960s, when the ICRC played a small role in the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Committee had retained its traditional form, and efforts to impose structural reform from the outside eroded. The mono-national makeup of the Committee was seen as providing guarantees of active neutrality in humanitarian work. ICRC statutes, guaranteeing an independent role for the agency, were further reaffirmed by the International Red Cross Conference. (The Conference meets in principle every four years, attended by the ICRC, the Federation, all recognized National Societies, and governments from states that are parties to the Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Victims of War.)
It was the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970) that reopened debates about the effectiveness of the all-Swiss ICRC. In that conflict, covered extensively by the Western communications media, and investigating charges of genocide against the civilian population in secessionist (Biafran) areas, the ICRC seemed to lack strategic vision and defensible policies. In competition with other aid agencies acting to protect civilians in the midst of war, it behaved in ways that, in fact, aided the rebel cause. These policies could not be justified in terms of the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Some of its personnel were insensitive to feelings on the government's side. As a result, a relief plane flying under its aegis was shot down by the federal air force, with loss of life, and the government in Lagos declared its chief delegate persona non grata. The ICRC was, therefore, forced to the sidelines while other humanitarian organizations continued their efforts in that region.
A movement then started to replace neutral Red Cross humanitarianism with a more political kind of humanitarianism that took sides between "good" and "bad" forces. This movement led to the creation of other private aid groups, such as Doctors without Borders and Doctors of the World. For a time they tried to combine work for victims of war with public denunciations of those committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. However, in Rwanda in 1994 (discussed below), field-workers from Doctors without Borders had to be absorbed into the ICRC delegation in order to survive. That is, they had to be neutralized. Had they tried to denounce the genocide occurring, they would have been killed by the militant Hutu.
The Nigerian civil war was traumatic for the ICRC, so much so that it set in motion a series of fundamental changes at its headquarters. In the decades that followed the roles of the Committee and its president were reduced, and the role of the professional staff was enhanced. By 2002 the ICRC had a double executive, with the office of director-general, like a prime minister, being responsible for the management of daily affairs. The president became the chief spokesman for the organization to the outside world, although he or she continued to exercise influence on general policy making. The Committee became more like many modern parliaments, mostly reacting to initiatives by the double executive and altering perhaps only 10 percent of what was presented to it. Thus, ICRC policy making and management saw an increased role for professional humanitarians and a diminished role for the mostly "amateur volunteers" serving in the Committee. (Some Committee members were co-opted into that body after retiring from the professional side of the house.) Moreover, from 1990 on the professional staff was internationalized and no longer all-Swiss. Most of this change can be traced back to the amateurish, bumbling performance of the president and Committee during the Nigerian civil war.
Throughout the remaining years of the cold war the ICRC consolidated its position as a major humanitarian actor in conflicts. Starting in 1967 it began a long involvement in the territories taken by Israel in the war of that year, territories which the ICRC regarded as occupied territory under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. The situation led to various ICRC public statements in keeping with its general policy on public criticism, namely to speak out only when the fate of victims constitutes a major violation of international humanitarian law, the violations are repeated, discreet diplomacy to improve the situation was tried and failed, and any public statement issued is in the interests of victims.
In the 1970s the ICRC played its usual role, developing and then drafting two additional protocols, or additional treaties, to the 1949 Geneva Conventions: the first on international war, the second on internal war. Also noteworthy was the ICRC's extensive work with political or security prisoners, especially in the western hemisphere. Just as the ICRC visited prisoners like Nelson Mandela in South Africa or those incarcerated by the junta ruling Greece from 1967 to 1974, so the ICRC undertook to provide a basic "life insurance policy" to prisoners in South and Central America, even though most of these situations were not regarded by governments as conventional international or internal wars. If a prisoner was considered an "enemy" by detaining authorities, and an adversarial relationship thus existed, the ICRC attempted to play its traditional role through detention visits. Focusing on conditions rather than the causes of detention, and frequently avoiding legal labels and debates, the ICRC tried to counteract "forced disappearances," summary execution, torture, mistreatment, total isolation from family, and other policies devised by mostly military governments in places such as Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and El Salvador.
Some of these situations, as in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet, may have been characterized by crimes against humanity, namely, a systematic and broad attack on the civilian population through such measures as generalized torture and/or summary execution. The ICRC avoided such legal judgments and focused instead on the pragmatic improvement of detention conditions. The ICRC was not able to secure the cooperation of Cuba for systematic visits in keeping with its policies: that is, access to all prisoners, private visits, follow-up visits, and improvement in general conditions over time. In places like Peru during the era of Alberto Fujimori, the ICRC suspended its visits because of lack of improvement in the treatment of prisoners.
When Poland was under martial law in the 1980s, the ICRC made its first large scale detention visits to security prisoners in a communist country. The ICRC had visited POWs in the border conflict between China and Vietnam in 1979, but had not been able to visit any prisoners held by North Korea from 1950 until 1953, or North Vietnam from 1947 until 1975.
The cold war years also saw the ICRC consolidate its position as a major relief organization, the Nigerian civil war notwithstanding. In places such as Cambodia and the Thai-Cambodian border during 1979 and immediately thereafter, the ICRC was a major actor, along with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP), in providing nutritional and medical relief to a civilian population, including refugees and internally displaced persons, on a major scale. In Cambodia, virtually destroyed by the genocide and crimes against humanity of the Khmer Rouge (radical agrarian communists), the ICRC teamed with UNICEF to provide the primary conduit for international humanitarian assistance. It managed to cooperate with UN agencies while preserving its independence, neutrality, and impartiality—the three key instrumental principles in its global humanitarianism. The ICRC also carried out a major medical relief operation in Pakistan for victims of the fighting in neighboring Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and occupation (1979–1989).
The Vision in the Twenty-First Century
In the first decade after the cold war, the ICRC found itself center stage in places like Bosnia (1992–1995) and Somalia (1991–1993). In the former, while continuing its work regarding detainees, it ran the second largest relief operation (second only to that of the UN refugee office). Its overall annual budget at this time was in the neighborhood of $600 million. Caught in the midst of genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, it sought to do what it could for both prisoners and civilians. It failed to prevent the massacre of perhaps some seven to eight thousand Bosnian Muslim males at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995 because Bosnian Serb commanders failed to cooperate. However, it actively compiled records of those killed and missing. The ICRC was unable to prevent forced displacement and actually contributed to ethnic cleansing by helping to move civilians out of harm's way, but did prevent considerable death and deprivation. Its chief delegate was killed when his well-marked vehicle was intentionally attacked. (Six Red Cross workers were also intentionally killed in Chechnya.)
In Somalia the ICRC distinguished itself through its dedicated work in coping with massive malnutrition and starvation in that failed state. Staying on the ground when other agencies pulled out, bringing in journalists to dramatize the plight of the civilian population, and dealing creatively with the violent clan structure of that chaotic country, the ICRC finally teamed with the U.S. military, acting under a UN mandate, to break the back of starvation in the winter of 1992 and 1993. It was the first time in the ICRC's history that the organization agreed to work under the military protection of a state, but such was the only way the massive starvation and rampant banditry then in existence could be addressed.
The ICRC did hire its own private protection forces in Somalia, and accepted the military protection of the UN security force in the Balkans, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), to guarantee the safe movement of some released prisoners. In places such as Somalia, Chechnya, or Liberia, the ICRC could no longer rely on the Red Cross emblem as a symbol of neutrality that allowed humanitarian efforts in the midst of conflict. Many of the fighting parties in these places had never heard of the Red Cross or the Geneva Conventions.
In Rwanda in 1994, when militant Hutu unleashed genocidal attacks on Tutsi (as well as attacks on moderate Hutu interested in social accommodation and power sharing), the ICRC stayed in-country and provided what aid and shelter it could. It thus helped about 50,000 Tutsi, at the price of not denouncing the genocide that claimed perhaps 800,000 lives. It tried to make known to the outside world what was transpiring in Rwanda, but without using the term "genocide." At this time important outside actors with the ability to intervene, like the United States, chose not to describe the situation in Rwanda as genocide, in order to avoid the legal obligation, as a party to the 1948 Genocide Convention, to take action to stop it. Whether ICRC's public use of the word "genocide" would have affected policy makers in the United States is an interesting question. But as with other aid agencies in Rwanda, the ICRC could not have passed legal judgment on the nature of the conflict and remained operative inside the country. Militant Hutu had made that very clear. Most ICRC personnel were not harmed by those carrying out genocide, with the exception of some Rwandan female nurses working in conjunction with the ICRC.
Although internal or "deconstructed" conflicts like those in Bosnia and Somalia—or Liberia and the Democratic Congo—garnered much of the ICRC's attention after the cold war, it continued to play its traditional roles in international armed conflicts. In Iraq (1991, 2003), Afghanistan (2001–2002), and the Middle East (since 1967), the organization continued with detention visits, relief to the civilian population, efforts to trace missing persons, and attention to weapons that were indiscriminate and/or caused suffering which exceeded military necessity. Even in these more clearly international armed conflicts, its personnel and facilities were sometimes intentionally attacked, sometimes with loss of life. In places like Iraq in 2003, displaying the Red Cross emblem meant providing a target for attack.
The ICRC joined with other groups and governments to develop the Ottawa treaty (the 1997 Convention of the Prohibition, Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and Their Destruction) banning antipersonnel land mines. In places such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Angola in particular, the ICRC had seen the devastating effects of indiscriminate land mines, which continued to kill and maim, mainly civilians, long after combat had subsided. The ICRC was also a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court (ICC; negotiated in 1998 and operational as of 2002), especially because the court's jurisdiction included war crimes, as well as genocide and crimes against humanity. However, with the approval of the international community, the ICRC has refused to allow its personnel to provide information to this and other courts, fearing that such information would interfere with its in-country operations. This right not to testify in court was confirmed by the case law of the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and in the 1998 statute of the International Criminal Court. The ICRC continues to prioritize neutral pragmatic humanitarianism, a form of informal application of the law, while leaving formal legal enforcement to others.
The so-called war on terrorism that the United States began waging after Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, has created special problems for the ICRC. The United States has refused to apply the Geneva Conventions to many prisoners taken in its war on terrorism, which does not always involve a traditional international armed conflict between states. Moreover, the United States has developed a complicated system of detention for such prisoners, holding them without publicity in many places, mostly outside the continental United States and sometimes in foreign countries. Finding these detention centers and securing the cooperation of U.S. authorities have not been easy, especially given the U.S. tendency to hold these prisoners for indefinite duration, in isolation, to extract information from them. On the other side of the conflict, Al Qaeda continues to call for an unlimited, "total" war featuring attacks on civilians and civilian installations, which are violations of international humanitarian law.
Summary: ICRC and Red Cross Humanitarianism
It is therefore clear, even from this brief historical overview, that the ICRC has evolved, from its inception in 1863 to the early twenty-first century, into a major humanitarian actor in world affairs. It has more experience in conducting detention visits with various categories of prisoners than any other worldwide agency. It is one of the four largest relief agencies, the others being the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF, and the WFP. It is a major player in tracing missing persons due to conflict. And it is the "guardian" of international humanitarian law. The latter notion has been expanded to include a focus not just on the legal protection of victims, but also on the legal regulation of means and methods of combat. The ICRC employs about eight hundred workers at its Geneva headquarters and, on average, deploys another twelve hundred people in its field missions, not counting numerous locally recruited staff for administrative and logistical support.
The contemporary ICRC is less amateurish and much more professional than was previously the case. Its scope of action is truly global, as it tries to focus as much attention on victims of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo as in Iraq. This is the meaning of impartial humanitarianism toward individuals. The ICRC also attempts to apply the same minimal standards without regard to political ideology. For instance, the humane detention conditions it advocates when dealing with prisoners held by the United States at its detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba, are essentially the same as those the organization has requested for American POWs held captive in North Vietnam or Iraq. This is the meaning of neutrality toward public authorities. The ICRC tries to remain independent from any state, coalition of states, or intergovernmental organization, even though Western liberal democracies provide 85 percent of its budget. (The remaining funds derive from contributions made by national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, but again mostly in Western nations.)
Controversy over the Holocaust
Still hanging over the head of the ICRC is its record in responding to the Holocaust. Some facts have become clear, although questions remain and the debate continues.
At the outbreak of World War II Swiss federal authorities in Bern wished to ensure that the ICRC in Geneva did not interfere with Swiss national security and other Swiss policies defined in Bern. Swiss authorities therefore established a system of supervision over the ICRC that compromised the organization's independence in major ways. Such supervision was made easy by the fact that at this time it was possible to hold membership in the Committee and also federal office in Bern. The Swiss president in 1942, for example, Philippe Etter, was also a member of the Committee. Moreover, some members of the Committee were sympathetic to whatever Bern might identify as the national interests of the moment. ICRC President Max Huber agreed to supervision by Bern, and influential Committee members such as Carl J. Burckhardt apparently shared many of the views of the governing elite in Bern. Buckhardt was named Swiss Ambassador to France after the war, which showed that he was part of the governing establishment in Bern.
During the early years of World War II it was the policy of Bern to accommodate the Nazis in various ways. (Other European neutrals like Sweden also accommodated the Nazis while German power was ascendant.) Switzerland shared a border with its powerful German neighbor, and some Swiss feared invasion. Moreover, as the war progressed, Switzerland was virtually surrounded by fascist governments. In response it became Germany's banker, converting stolen goods into ready currency. Switzerland also turned back many Jewish refugees, not wanting to draw attention to the Nazi policies responsible for their flight. The Swiss diplomat Paul Ruegger, who became ICRC president after the war, devised the infamous practice of stamping the passports of German Jews with a "J" for Juden, so they could be identified and turned back at Swiss and other borders.
The ICRC was aware of the German concentration camps from the 1930s. It made overtures, first through the German Red Cross, to gain access to the camps, but never achieved systematic and meaningful access until the very end of the war. The German Red Cross was thoroughly Nazified and functioned as part of the German totalitarian state. The ICRC never de-recognized the German Red Cross, despite its gross violations of Red Cross principles, which included pseudo-medical experiments on camp inmates. It is fair to label ICRC overtures about the camps as excessively cautious. On the other hand, outside of Germany, in places like Hungary, ICRC delegates in the field were creative and dynamic in helping Jews flee Nazi persecution.
By the summer of 1942 the ICRC had reliable information that the concentration camps had become death camps, as the Nazis implemented a policy of genocide after the Wannasee Conference of January 1942, attended by a high number of German officials. In October 1942, the Committee debated whether or not to issue a public statement deploring both unspecified German policies and certain policies adopted by the Allied nations toward German POWs. This relatively innocuous, vague, and balanced draft statement was shelved by the Committee after Swiss President Etter, supported by Burckhardt and a few other Committee members, spoke out against it. Etter had been alerted to pending events by the supervisory system in place, being warned that a majority of Committee members were prepared to vote in favor of issuing the public statement. Etter and his colleagues in Bern feared that such a statement would antagonize Berlin, although at the meeting where the decision to shelve the draft was made, Etter and his Committee supporters urged continued silence so as to avoid a violation of Red Cross neutrality. ICRC President Huber was absent from this meeting. It later became known that he served on the board of directors of his family's Swiss weapons company that used Nazi slave labor in its German subsidiary. Huber's fundamental values and views remain a source of debate. The ICRC thus never publicly condemned the German policy of genocide. The first line of ICRC defense is as follows. The organization was visiting Allied POWs held by Germany as covered by the 1929 Geneva Convention on that subject, and international humanitarian law did not apply to German concentration camp inmates. So the argument runs, the ICRC did not want to risk German non-cooperation on POW matters for the sake of a controversial public statement about German citizens not covered by international law. The second line of defense is that, given the Nazi fixation on eradicating Jews and other "undesirables," a public statement would have done no good. This latter argument is persuasive to some, but not all, given that the Nazis continued to devote time, energy, and resources to operating the gas chambers even when on the brink of defeat.
Later ICRC leaders, particularly President Cornelio Sommaruga (1987–1999), adopted the position that the entire Western world had failed to respond adequately to the Holocaust, and the ICRC was part of that failure. He went on to apologize publicly for any possible mistakes that the ICRC might have made regarding the Holocaust. To some, but not all, this line was an effort to "democratize the blame" and avoid any direct responsibility for mistakes.
The historian Michael Beschloss has written that the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to measure up to the gravity of the Holocaust by not responding more decisively to Nazi atrocities, and that its record would have been brighter had it done so. Some observers believe the same could be said of the ICRC. Some of these observers think the real problem lay in how the ICRC came to remain silent. For them, a public statement by the then obscure ICRC could hardly have been expected to change the course of the Holocaust. For them, a public statement by the equally silent Vatican would have carried more weight. For them, the real issue was that the ICRC sacrificed its independent humanitarianism on the altar of Swiss national interests as defined in Bern. Thus, the ICRC's silence damaged its reputation for independent, neutral, and impartial humanitarian work, devoid of any "political" or strategic calculation. Some Committee members made this point in October 1942—before deferring to what Bern wanted.
It is now ICRC policy that one cannot be a member of the Committee and also hold most public offices in Switzerland, at either the federal, state, or local level. A headquarters agreement is in place that makes ICRC premises off-limits to Swiss authorities. Given that Swiss authorities are hardly likely to raid ICRC headquarters, this agreement symbolizes the organization's independence. The most recent ICRC presidents, like Sommaruga and Jacob Kellenberger (1999–), even though former Swiss government officials, seem determined not to allow similar intrusions of Swiss national interests to control the deliberations of the Committee. And presumably, present-day Swiss officials will not seek to project similar political considerations onto ICRC affairs, given the damage done to ICRC independence by the events of the 1940s. The contemporary conventional wisdom is that it is in the Swiss national interest to have an independent and neutral ICRC that reflects well on the Swiss nation.
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David P. Forsythe