Noble human rights defender or international band-aid? On contemporary humanitarianism.

Author:Mills, Kurt
Position:Critical essay


The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross by David P. Forsythe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

In David Forsythe's The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross we see a microcosm of the internal and external struggles and dilemmas that human rights and humanitarian organizations face today. We see a picture of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as both the "heroic leader" and the "marginal social worker" (282). We see an organization at one time quite satisfied with its principles and ways of doing things, but also a movement which is internally divided and incoherent in many ways. We see an organization which is seemingly both incompatible and complementary with other human rights and humanitarian organizations. We see an organization firmly tied to states while also in opposition to them. We see an organization clinging to, and attempting to propagate, rules governing warfare in the face of many recalcitrant states, while at the same time setting aside the letter of the law when necessary.

The ICRC is a strange beast which raises not only questions for those engaged in the struggle for human dignity but also for those trying to understand the role of non-state (or at least partially nonstate) actors in global politics today. This essay will proceed in two steps: first, it will examine the ICRC (and the broader Red Cross Movement) as an actor itself; second, it will place the ICRC within the much broader realm of humanitarianism today, pointing to numerous questions related to the contemporary practice of humanitarianism.

First, a word on definitions is necessary. The ICRC is labeled as a humanitarian organization. This obviously is because it helps to provide relief and protection to those caught in conflict--both to civilians in need of food, shelter and medical supplies; and to soldiers after they have been injured or captured. Yet, it is also a human rights organization insofar as it promotes human dignity generally. Others, such as David Kennedy (2004), use the term humanitarian to describe activities undertaken during conflict as well as those outside of the conflict arena. In one sense, these are conceptually distinct categories. Yet, there is certainly overlap between the norms found in international humanitarian law and international human rights law (and, indeed, with international refugee law) to such an increasing extent that it sometimes may become meaningless to say, for example, that one is engaging in humanitarian action but not protecting human rights. In fact, Forsythe points out that one can talk about assistance protection as well as attempting to intervene with public authorities to help, for example, individual prisoners. This is a (non-)distinction that other actors like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also grapple with. The UNHCR talks about legal protection (i.e., trying to get states to uphold their obligations under the refugee convention), but it actually spends a lot more of its time and money providing on-the-ground assistance. Besides the obvious benefits provided by UNHCR action, such as food and medical care, the UNHCR also argues that its mere presence on-the-ground can be a disincentive for states or non-state elements to harm refugees (some very publicized cases to the contrary notwithstanding). Other organizations, like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, very obviously fall at the human rights end of the continuum since they are not operational. As discussed below, the sometimes very real practical distinctions between humanitarian and human rights or between different types of protection can lead to tensions within an organization like the ICRC or between different organizations.


As Forsythe points out, the ICRC is an organization very few people know much about. This is partly because of the secrecy inherent in the organizational culture and generally low profile it keeps, perhaps partly because, as an independent organization with strong ties to states and with a legal mandate provided by states, it does not fit within the theoretical and conceptual boxes to which we are accustomed. The ICRC has its conceptual and practical roots almost 150 years ago when it was formed by a small group of Swiss notables. It has remained a Swiss organization in both its upper management (1) and temperament. Regarding the latter, by "Swissness" Forsythe means to convey the qualities of "liberalism and democracy, collective policymaking, emphasis on personal integrity/honesty, managerial expertise, attention to detail, careful financial accounting, slowness to regard women as fully equal, unilateralism/aloofness, discretion/secrecy, conservatism and risk aversion, aversion to public moral judgments, and stolid public demeanor" (241). I will not engage here on whether or not this is an accurate description of the Swiss psyche and national character, but to the extent that it is accurate, the ICRC certainly seems to fit the mold. As Forsythe maintains, the ICRC has liberal goals and conservative means. It is fully embedded in Western democratic liberalism (as are pretty much all humanitarian/human rights organizations) but goes about promoting its liberal goals in a slow (sometimes frustratingly slow for many observers), methodical, non-confrontational way. Because most of its upper management and governing body come from the governing/economic elite of Swiss society, the ICRC has, at times, represented Swiss nationalism and reflected the goals of Swiss foreign policy in ways that would appear unseemly for an independent organization (this was particularly the case during World War II). However, Forsythe maintains that, with a few unfortunate examples (in particular while the Swiss government was trying to prevent a Nazi invasion), it has conducted itself with admirable independence.

This reputation for independence is all the more impressive given how closely the ICRC is tied to states. After all, the ICRC is formally given the role of protector of international humanitarian law (IHL) in the Geneva Conventions and given the right (not necessarily always implemented) to conduct rather intrusive visits of prisoners of war. One could argue that because it has a mandate from states--and states provide bulk of its funding--the ICRC would be much more beholden to states. While it has acted agonizingly slow at times, it has not shied away from publicizing abuses by states--including very powerful ones who provide it with much of its funding. Maintaining the independence is much harder for the other two parts of the Red Cross Movement (the 180+ National Societies and the umbrella International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies). The National Societies have ended up being quasi-governmental organizations and thus, when a state is involved in activities that the ICRC might not approve of, the National Society would be hard-pressed to do anything but follow the lead of its patron government. Although there is talk of a "Red Cross Movement," it is sometimes hard to discern coherence within this movement. One might expect some...

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