The ICRC since 1945: Indochina, 1947-1954
How, in a landmark anti-colonial conflict fought by a modern revolutionary movement, the ICRC met with considerable difficulties in carrying out independent humanitarian action.
Under agreements worked out between the Allies in 1945, Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam were to be disarmed in the north by the Chinese and in the south by the British. However, France, the colonial ruler, negotiated with both in order to resume its controlling position and landed troops in February 1946.
Initially, this was done with the approval of the Viet Minh independence movement, whose leader, Ho Chi Minh, had proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on 2 September 1945. France was prepared to grant the DRV self-governing status and on 6 March 1946 an agreement to this end was signed.
However, barely three months later the French administration in southern Vietnam (known as Cochin China) created an autonomous republic, the main aim being to safeguard local French interests. This heightened tensions between the DRV and France, culminating in a clash between their forces at the northern port of Haiphong in November.
The French navy then bombarded the city, killing thousands of people. A few weeks later, on 19 December, violence broke out in Hanoi, and several Europeans were killed or taken prisoner. The Viet Minh withdrew from the cities and began a drawn out guerrilla campaign, in which their forces held large swathes of countryside, from north to south.
In January 1947 the ICRC, alarmed by the sudden worsening of the situation, sent a delegate, Charles Aeschlimann, to Vietnam. He set about meeting both the French and DRV authorities – the latter, thanks to facilitation by diplomats of the United Kingdom and China.
The DRV representatives told him he could visit prisoners held anywhere on DRV-controlled territory, and within ten days he had visited the Hoa Binh camp, south of Hanoi, where 171 French prisoners were held; he brought them food and medicines. Shortly afterwards, in response to Aeschlimann's request for the release of women, children and the elderly, the DRV authorities released 29 people.
Crossing the front lines
Following this, the ICRC delegate had severa l meetings with the DRV and the Vietnamese Red Cross organization, crossing front lines with the assistance of the French military, and handed over further supplies of medicines as well as messages from the prisoners'families. However, no further visits to captured Europeans were allowed.
Meanwhile Aeschlimann was visiting Vietnamese prisoners held by the French in both northern and southern parts of the country. This went ahead despite initial reluctance by the French authorities, who took the view that the troubles in Vietnam amounted to no more than internal disorder, governed by French law – no outsiders were therefore needed. After insistence by the ICRC, however, they allowed the visits to proceed.
After August 1947 the ICRC covered Vietnam from its regional delegation in Singapore. Aeschlimann also tried to renew contacts with the DRV through their representation in the Thai capital, Bangkok. Previously he had been told that new visits to prisoners could be made " when conditions allowed " , but in December 1948 he was advised that a French offensive in the north had made travel too dangerous.
Strategic situation changes
By the end of 1949 the strategic situation in the region was changing: both the Soviet Union and the newly- proclaimed People's Republic of China were supporting the DRV, while the United States and Britain backed a pro-French Vietnamese government installed under the former emperor, Bao Dai. As clashes grew in intensity, the Americans began providing military support to the French.
With the numbers of prisoners growing on each side, the ICRC felt that it was urgent to have more productive relations with the DRV. After further contacts via the DRV office in Burma (now Myanmar), the DRV radio station began broadcasting messages from French prisoners, for their families – something the ICRC had been urging for a long time.
The ICRC went on to propose a general distribution of medical assistance for all victims of the fighting on DRV territory. On a visit to Hanoi early in 1951, the ICRC President Paul Ruegger made a radio appeal to Ho Chi Minh, urging him to make the necessary arrangements for the assistance to be distributed. The message was replayed several times and in June the new ICRC delegate, Paul Kuhne, learned that the DRV Red Cross had accepted the offer of aid.
A meeting was arranged at Hung Hoa, north-west of Hanoi, on 26 July. The DRV representatives'primary concern was for the planned distribution of medical supplies, but they took note of the ICRC's request to have a physical presence on DRV territory and of its concerns over establishing regular contacts between prisoners and their families. They rejected, however, any notion of the ICRC taking part in the distribution of relief.
A further meeting, in October 1951, failed to take matters any further. Subsequent ICRC radio appeals for meetings went unanswered.
In Indochina, the ICRC found itself facing difficulties based on ideological reasons, says Jean-François Berger, ICRC editor in chief of the magazine Red Cross Red Crescent and author of a book* on the subject.
"For the RDV, enemy prisoners were reactionaries who had to be "re-educated", not simply combatants no longer able to fight. This attitude excluded any possibility of outsiders, such as the ICRC, becoming involved," says Berger.
"Neutrality itself was seen as something hostile, suspect…"
*L'action du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge en Indochine, ed. Corbaz (Montreux)
The ICRC had become concerned that its approach to the DRV – essentially from the “enemy side”, in other words, territory controlled by the French – was compromising its independence and perceived neutrality.
To reinforce its position, the ICRC decided to cease its attempts to contact the RDV from French-controlled territory, including the transmission of appeals by radio. It continued its visits to Vietnamese prisoners held by the French – around 30 visits a year in 1952/53.
Dien Bien Phu
By this time the ICRC was using the DRV embassy in Peking (now Beijing) as its main channel of communication, in particular for forwarding mail to French prisoners and letters from Vietnamese prisoners to their families. But it never proved possible to gain permission for an ICRC delegate to visit DRV territory.
In the final act of the conflict – the DR V attack on the French position at Dien Bien Phu, from March 1954 – the ICRC appealed to both sides to reach an agreement on respecting the red cross emblem so as to safely evacuate the wounded. It also proposed setting up hospital zones, under the terms of the Geneva Conventions – but to no avail.
In the event, after the Vietnamese victory in May, the seriously wounded were exchanged without an intermediary, and when the time came for prisoners to be released, this was done under the auspices of an international commission, without the need for ICRC intervention.
The Geneva Accords of July 1954 opened the way for the withdrawal of French troops and for Vietnam to be divided at the 17th parallel, with a referendum to be organized on re-uniting the country. In the two years that followed, the ICRC helped organize relief for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled south, and provided further medical assistance to the DRV Red Cross.