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Cuba missile crisis: ICRC explains its position

15-11-1962 Statement

In a circular letter addressed to national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, on 15 November 1962, the ICRC explained the factors that had led it to offer help to ease the missile crisis.

Mr. Thant, Acting Secretary-General of the United Nations, has requested the eventual help of the ICRC in the control of vessels proceeding to Cuba. By the terms of this proposal, the ICRC would appoint a team of some thirty inspectors from outside the institution which would be put at the disposal of the United Nations and placed under their authority. These inspectors would assure for a limited period that cargoes did not contain certain categories of weapons.

The ICRC replied that it could consider, as an absolutely exceptional measure, lending its good offices to the United Nations. It imposed, however, two prior conditions on its acceptance in principle, namely that the three Powers directly concerned agree to the action requested of it and that this should conform to Red Cross principles.

The ICRC did not take this decision without considerable reflexion, since such a task is outside the conventional and traditional scope of its humanitarian mission. Several important reasons, however, led it not to immediately reject the proposal which had been submitted to it.

First of all, an appeal was being made to the ICRC as the only international body able, in circumstances of extreme gravity, to fulfil a mandate judged to be capable of maintaining peace in the world. Now, there had been every reason to fear, for several days at least, that a conflict breaking out under such conditions would rapidly assume the character of an atomic war, which would not have failed to cause the loss of countless lives and inflict vast suffering on many other people. Even more, the Red Cross itself at the same time risked seeing its work everywhere destroyed or rendered impossible.

The declaration of Red Cross Principles recently adopted in Prague by the Council of Delegates, assigns to the Red Cross the duty to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found and to promote " co-operation and lasting peace amongst all peoples”. There was a time in the history of the Red Cross when it was thought that giving assistance to prisoners of war, or relief work in time of peace, were outside its field of activity. Gradually, during the course of a long period of evolution, the Red Cross has now extended its scope to include suffering in nearly all its forms.

It could be feared that the Red Cross might venture into the sphere of international politics. However, it is precisely by reason of its neutrality and independence towards all States that the ICRC was considered, not to accomplish an act of a political order, but on the contrary to exercise, in a given situation, its functions of a non-political institution. Moreover, whenever it fights against the evils engendered by conflicts, whenever it endeavours to set limits to the recourse to employing certain methods of combat, the ICRC intervenes, to some extent, on a State level, in order to make a duty of humanity prevail, on each occasion on which the importance of the interests involved demand it. In insisting, as a prior condition to any action on its part, on the express agreement of the three States directly concerned, the ICRC esteems that it has, in advance, " depoliticized " the mission which would be entrusted to it, in circumstances which, one must emphasize, could lead to a general war.