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Protecting war victims: lessons of the past, challenges for the future

15-09-1997 Statement

Address by Dr Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva to the Friends of the Magen David Adom in Great Britain Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library London, Chatham House 15 September 1997

Allow me first to say how pleased I am to be with you here tonight in this fine and celebrated place of debate at the invitation of The Friends of the Magen David Adom in Great Britain and the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library.

I have the honour to be here as the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, an organisation on which, despite all efforts to the contrary, hangs a pall of mystery sometimes tinged with controversy. I am here tonight to spell out the absence of mystery in our institutional being and, hopefully, dispel lingering doubts. The ICRC is merely a humanitarian institution, the specific neutral, the oldest, the largest of what constitutes today a long list of names. Yet, the ICRC, and indeed the whole Red Cross Movement's place in the international and national world is a very particular one and, I am convinced, an indispensable one. This was recognised by none other than Sir Winston Churchill for whom the ICRC was " a platform, the only platform between the lines of battle (where) men could meet together and recognise their common humanity " . This statement, made exactly 51 years ago as Sir Winston was visiting our headquarters in Geneva, is still valid; this is what I hope to demonstrate to you tonight.

My task is made easier by the fact that it is well known that Jews since the earliest times considered that service to the community was not an option for an individual but a duty. In this country, the Jewish community distinguished itself by providing Great Britain with leading statesmen, artists, scholars, public servants, financiers and philanthropists. Also, I am natu rally aware that a great many British Jews actively support and assist the vital humanitarian and charitable work of the British Red Cross Society and of the Magen David Adom in Israel.

This evening, I would like to explain to you the work, the humanitarian objectives of the ICRC and its commitment to international humanitarian law. I would also like to address, openly and frankly, two issues which I know are of great concern to all of us here: the role of the Red Cross in the Second World War, and the recognition of the Magen David Adom - the red Shield of David.

The association, between a web of National Societies recognised by the ICRC -there are exactly 171 of them throughout the world-, and a secular, impartial and independent body devoted to the victims of armed conflicts, is unique in its kind. It is planetary in scope and enables a most professional and ethical dispensation of humanitarian aid. Every year, hundreds of thousands of victims of war are assisted medically, nutritionally, materially by the ICRC. Our total budget for this year, 85% of which is financed by voluntary contributions of governments signatory to the Geneva Conventions, runs close to 300 million pounds sterling. The British Government with close to 12 million pounds is the fourth major provider to our operational budget. The British Red Cross also very generously contributes to the ICRC in cash as well as in kind and services and in delegated projects; it was fourth in line among National Societies, after the German, Norwegian and Swedish Red Cross. At present, working in the context of some 30 conflicts, the ICRC has over 8,600 delegates and staff members (of whom 200 come from National Societies and just over 6,800 are local employees). The institution has an established presence in some 54 countries though it is active in many more; but the ICRC doesn't only hope to assist, it also strives to protect. 

One of the more difficult fi elds of work particular to the ICRC is in providing protection to those who are imprisoned for political or " security " reasons. It is an area of work where to be effectual there must be a clear understanding among all parties involved, the ICRC and those detained at one level, but also between the ICRC and the detaining authorities. In such a delicate area, the ICRC's modus operandi rests on a balance of transparency and confidentiality. In other words, we openly state and it needs to be duly understood by all involved, that there are things that the ICRC will not say publicly because to do so would be counterproductive for those to whom it matters most, those in captivity. It is, I admit, sometimes a difficult concept to accept; but if the ICRC is denied access to a jail it cannot help those held within. In 1996 alone, ICRC delegates visited more than 2,100 places of detention in some 61 countries. Close to 140,000 detainees were seen by our delegates of whom over 100,000, crammed into what can only be described as atrocious conditions, are in Rwanda alone. 

But it is not just people held in detention that need protection; it is all non combatants and in particular all civilian populations at times of conflict. Protection is meant both in the sense of preventing arbitrary and cruel punishment on a person or group of persons, but also in the sense of reaching, physically, those who need humanitarian attention. If you will allow me to be very general about things, I would say, the world has the money to finance humanitarian aid, and most of the world recognises the value of such aid; but the correlation between assistance and the protection of those who benefit from this assistance is not fully accepted. There is indeed no point in saying that women and children in times of war have a right to medical and nutritional assistance and then accept that belligerents deny them the right to live unmolested. Furthermore, over the past few years, the trend towards inhumanity or irresponsibility has taken a turn for the worse since aid personnel, including delegates of the ICRC and humanitarian workers of various National Societies, have been targeted, and killed, by belligerents who place themselves beyond all laws but those they choose for themselves. It is a regrettable thing to have to say, but today even humanitarian workers need protection to bring assistance to those who need it. The protection I envisage for humanitarian workers is not of the armed kind but one that flows from the respect all must owe to those who assist and particularly to those operating under the protective emblem of the red cross, that is part of international law since 1864.

The protection of victims of war is more a question of will than of logistics. The launch pad of humanitarian action in situations of conflict I believe we have; it was translated into modern law in 1949 with the signing of the Four Geneva Conventions. These Conventions contain wide ranging yet precise indications of the rules that must be respected at all times. The Conventions also include an important proviso, stated in what is known as " Common Article One " , which says that the High Contracting Parties -that is the signatory States-, " undertake to respect and to ensure respect " of these Conventions. Today, 188 States have endorsed them, that is the entire world minus a handful of countries who, as was shown in the recent conflict between non-signatory Eritrea and signatory Yemen, chose nonetheless to honour their provisions. A smaller number of States have endorsed either or both of the two Additional Protocols adopted in 1977 to fill in those legal gaps that appeared as the act of modern war slipped from inter-State arenas to intra-State theatres. The relevance of these Additional Protocols is underlined by the fact that though war is still a common feature of the contemporary world, the re are few cases of actual conflict between established nations and there is no reason to believe that this pattern will change substantially in the coming century. It is to be regretted that still a number of countries -among them some major powers- have not yet found it opportune to endorse the Additional Protocols.

Regarding the United Kingdom, we have been receiving encouraging signals for some time, but we are still waiting for a formal endorsement. The United Kingdom's ratification of these Protocols, twenty years after they were signed by Her Majesty's Government, is all the more important since both the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols are at the heart of international humanitarian law, this century's legacy to future generations. " International humanitarian law " is not an arcane science, it is a body of law designed to be the indispensable moderator of international affairs when these affairs are embroiled in conflict. Yet if this essential humanitarian tool has been granted an almost universal acceptance, -I say " almost " because of the unwillingness of some forty States to adhere to the Additional Protocols-, its application is still very unsatisfactory. In short, the international community has now the tools to prevent abuses against civilian populations and to minimise suffering at times of war. It has the tools but I sometimes doubt that it really has the will.

This was not always so. I would like to take for example the achievements in this respect brought about nearly fifty years ago in the Middle East. In 1948, even before the British forces left Palestine, the ICRC, aware that a conflict was looming in the region, began preparing the ground for its humanitarian action. The first conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbours saw the introduction of " neutralised zones " before they were inscribed as such in the 4th Geneva Convention. Between May and October 1948, hundreds of Ar ab and Jewish women, children and elderly people were thus given shelter under the Red Cross emblem. It is unfortunate that other belligerents in other parts of the world in times more recent did not seek to copy the example given by both the Jewish and the Arab forces of 1948.

Yes indeed, the ICRC connection with the Middle East and with Israel date back to the 1940's and even long before that. As we have seen in this year's commemoration in Basle, Switzerland was not only the cradle of the Red Cross but also of modern Israel. Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross Movement, was an active promoter of the rights of Jews as a people. His message of humanitarianism also underlay his support for Jewish nationhood. He stressed the importance of "largesse d'esprit et tolérance" in any future Jewish State. It is in time of conflict, of fighting for survival, that such humanitarianism can be most placed under stress - and it is at these times that respect for these values, enshrined in international humanitarian law, is most vital.

Today, the ICRC has an extensive presence in Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Autonomous Territory. This year, though I don't know whether it really is cause for celebration, we mark our 30th year of presence in the region at the service of victims from all the communities. I would like to stress the fact that for years, ICRC delegates have had access to nearly all detained Palestinians in Israel ant the Occupied Territories and are able to run a family visits programme which, last year, enabled several thousand detainees to rekindle links with their next of kin. Likewise, we are pleased to have had access to Palestinians detained by the Palestinian authorities. In both cases, in Israel and in the Palestinian Autonomous administered Territory, ICRC access to detention centres seeks to provide a form of protection to those security detain ees imprisoned there. An ICRC presence in jails, introduced at repeated intervals, according to stringent procedures, aims at preventing mistreatment and to guarantee that essential rights such as proper medical care are met. Also, I should add, at a different level of activity, the ICRC was active on both sides of the front-line during Operation Grapes of Wrath also in providing medical and protective assistance, as it did in several other operations in the north of Israel as well as in Southern Lebanon, in the so called " Security Strip " .

Protection for non-combatants, starts with the respect belligerents owe to unarmed civilian populations. And so, the ICRC strongly condemns the indiscriminate bomb attacks that cause the death and wounding of hundreds of civilians in Israel and elsewhere. Terror directed against civilians is not an acceptable form of warfare. It is not honourable to those who wage it, it is unacceptably savage to those, of all creeds and communities, on whom it is inflicted.

Yet I have to say that our dialogue with the Israeli authorities -as it is sometimes in other countries- is often difficult. Indeed, the Jerusalem Government accepts a de facto application of the humanitarian clauses of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the territory they occupy, but refuses its de jure application.

This selective approach to the rule of law, has serious implications. It cannot be accepted that people with the power to decide the well-being of others should place partisan agendas before the interests of humanity. For example, a matter that I have often brought up with Israeli representatives, is the question of Jewish settlements on occupied land. These settlements are established in contradiction with the above mentioned Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, signed and ratified by the State of Israel as far back as 1951, and whose Article 49 unequivocally states: " The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies " . Likewise, Article 33 prohibits the punishment of a person " for an offence he or she has not personally committed " . The same Article 33 states " reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited " , by which ill-treatment of individuals under interrogation as well as the destruction of the homes of the families of those suspected of terrorist activities are done in violation of a treaty.

Law, the rule of law, the rule of international humanitarian law, is possible though its establishment is a continuous process. A perfect example today is, I believe, the tremendous progress made the world over in our fight against the barbarism of anti-personnel landmines. I do not need to describe to you the harm and suffering these most cruel weapons inflict on innocent people. I do not need to describe such horror to you because we have reached a stage where the world at large is convinced or about to be convinced of it.

A very large credit in this respect is due to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who, with a tremendous sense of humanity and compassion, visiting the victims of those cowardly weapons in the field, engaged herself with the Red Cross Movement for banning antipersonnel mines. We all in the Red Cross are mourning for the loss of this great noble Lady allied to our cause. 

Indeed, today, as I speak, over a hundred states have agreed to a total ban on the manufacture, transfer and of course use of such inhuman contraptions. This country's present government has committed itself to the ban and in so doing has greatly contributed to make a wish come true. In a little under th ree months'time, representatives of the British government will, we hope and expect, join their colleagues in Ottawa, Canada, to endorse formally in a Convention their declaration of humanitarian intent in this respect - an achievement in great part a result of raising public awareness of the humanitarian consequences arising from the indiscriminate use of this weapon, carried out largely by the British Red Cross. Our action against the cruelty of antipersonnel landmines as well as our expression of grave concern at the current proliferation of firearms, especially those that end up in the hands of people too young to be either soldiers or fighters of any kind, are meant to prevent unacceptable suffering as much as they are designed to protect from harm those who should be shielded from the direct effects of war.

At this point of my speech, I have to break the flow of my words. Let me indeed come to what is of very direct and particular interest to this audience and very close to its heart. After I have described great suffering and related assistance and other aspects of ICRC's activities, I now want to and have to describe greater suffering and a failure in protection and assistance. I am of course referring to the Shoah.

Like many countries and organisations, the ICRC has in recent years increasingly examined its role during the Second World War. You are certainly aware of the research of the historian Professor Jean-Claude Favez, published already 1987/1988 in French and German "Une mission impossible?" , that he carried out in our archives. As you may know we have now completely opened, without any restriction, our Second World War archives.

However for a humanitarian organisation, dedicated to the saving of human life, such a process of historical reflection is especially important and especially difficult. Important - because we must learn from past e rrors and omissions to ensure that they are never repeated. Difficult - because for those who strive to fulfil high ideals, any departure from those ideals, for whatever reason, is particularly painful.

The Shoah stands out, and will continue to stand out, as the most singular, the most dramatic tragedy to have struck mankind in recorded times. To you, as members of a Jewish community least of all need I describe the unspeakable horror which the crime of genocide brought onto an innocent people. There is no doubt that as it emerged from the harrowing ordeal of the Second World War, the society of Man could not look upon war and the essence of war -that is hate between communities of people- with the same eyes as before.

The ICRC, and myself as its current President, have often been criticised and even attacked for what was seen as our institution's inefficiency, according to some, tacit complicity with prevailing powers, according to others, during those dreadful years. This criticism centres mostly on the ICRC's silence at the time. Some believe that the ICRC knew more and before others of the terrible destiny inflicted on Jewish communities throughout Axis occupied territory. Yes the ICRC did know, or at least some of its Members knew, but so and at the same time, did the Governments of the Allied Forces and other concerned organisations.

It is true, the ICRC didn't speak out as it saw persecution become extermination. I cannot judge now my predecessors of 1939-1945. Possible errors and omissions of the then ICRC leadership -that I have regretted- certainly also refer to this silence. Yet the ICRC could not act successfully against the mountains of evil for as long as they remained triumphant; some delegates tried and failed. Let me give you the example of Dr René Burkhardt, not to be confounded with the Vice-President and later shortly President of the ICRC, Carl J. Burckhardt, whose name is spelled diffe rently. René Burkhardt was stationed in Salonica, Greece, and did protest against the deportation of Greek Jews: the Nazis responded merely by demanding his recall to Geneva. Prior to his expulsion, Burkhardt had at least been able to provide food to the Jewish ghetto; his departure served no other purpose than those of the Nazis themselves.

One may ask whether the ICRC should have spoken out solely to preserve its image. My answer is no, and let me explain why: for the ICRC, then and now, the act of speaking out, if it is to accomplish anything must be done with one criterion in mind and one only: will it help the victims concerned? This is a very delicate and difficult question to answer: the present Executive Board of the ICRC is often debating on the opportunity of going public in today's serious violations of humanitarian principles. We have to avoid -and I say it with humility- exaggerated beliefs in institutional powers and influence of the ICRC. I believe that one of the lessons that can and must be drawn from this, is that all victims of conflicts must know what they can expect from us and what they can't. There is indeed probably nothing more terrible for a person made vulnerable by violence unleashed than dashed illusions which become dashed hope.

Speaking out however, even if it can't alter the course of a policy methodically embarked upon by people devoid of human feelings, can be done to recognise the honour and courage of those who suffer. On this count, there can be no doubt whatsoever, the ICRC pays tribute to the eternal dignity of all those who survived or fell during the course of the National Socialist nightmare. And here dwells another important lesson: let us speak of the Holocaust, let us continue to proclaim "Never again" , let us recall that it was a failure of the Western civilisation as a whole and that the Red Cross was part of this civilisation!

Yet despite its regrettable shortcomings, the ICRC was able to carry out its conventional mandate of protecting prisoners of war. More than 7 Millions of persons in captivity, mainly British, Americans, French, Germans, Italians, were visited all over the world and received regularly relief consignments. The Central Agency for Prisoners of war of the ICRC, that cooperated intensively with the British Red Cross all over the Empire, had 1.811.000 name cards of British subjects for the period 1939-1947. Statistics of that time do show that British Prisoners of war did receive 153 Millions kg of consignments (mainly foodstuffs, clothing, tobacco, medicaments and toilet articles).

ICRC delegates were also able to save thousands of Jewish lives. Out of respect for those Red Cross delegates active at the time, I believe honour and recognition is owed to delegates like Friedrich Born in Budapest, whose tree of memory grows in the soil of pain at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He had saved ten thousands of Jews, probably more than Wallenberg did. In Germany itself, early 1945, at Mauthausen -where the delegate Louis Haefliger did wonders- or at the doors or Ravensbrück, once the change of direction in the winds of war had provoked hesitations within Nazi ranks, ICRC delegates were able to perform a lot. And so, if the role of the ICRC during the Shoah is to be judged and its failures fairly weighed, then it must also be remembered that the appearance of its delegates at the " gates of Hell " in the spring of 1945 was likened to that of " angels from God " by many inmates. At the close of the war, the ICRC was able to exploit narrow windows of opportunity, but the emergence of such opportunities were determined by the actions and decisions of others. It is not different today: the ICRC has the will to act but cannot act without the will of others.

When I attended the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Ausc hwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, I publicly regretted errors and omissions of the ICRC in relation to the Holocaust. But I also said that if the ICRC and the world as a whole will have learned from their errors and failures, then the victims will not have suffered or died in vain. And surely one of the most fundamental lessons to be drawn from this bitter past is the need for humanitarian law to exist and be applied and respected. It sounds obvious but just sixty years ago, this need was not fully understood. After the First World War, and a first planetary shedding of blood, the ICRC proposed to States laws that would have ensured the protection of civilian populations at times of conflict. This first initiative failed.

Later, as dark clouds gathered over Europe and the Far-East, the ICRC proposed, in 1934, a similar venture, known as the " Tokyo project " . This initiative also failed.

The failure of this legal project was a symptom of a lack of compassion and humanity in international affairs - something only too clearly demonstrated during the war itself. The world emerged traumatised from this tragedy, finally prepared to recognise the need to protect all human beings at all times. The development of international human rights law was one phoenix to emerge from the ashes of this trauma. The acceptance of our proposals for developing international humanitarian law - the Geneva Conventions - was another. The Jewish people, and all those persecuted by the Nazis -I repeat it-, paid a bitter and extreme price for these belated gifts to the world. Emerging from this tragedy, they have since played a distinguished role in developing these bodies of law and the promotion of tolerance and respect for the individual at both the national and international levels.

Let me stress it again, we cannot, must not, permit a repeat of the tragedies of the Holocaust. Yet tragedies perceived in the same spirit of hatred were committed in Cambodia and more recently in Rwanda, the Great Lakes'Region of Africa and the former Yugoslavia. The ICRC has sought to learn from the lessons of the past. It has been and is still active in these regions - even at the cost of the lives of its delegates. It has also spoken out frequently and energetically. It has sought to favor that those guilty of the barbarities of war crimes are brought to justice. Today we have the first international war crimes trials since Nuremberg taking place in the Netherlands and Tanzania and look forward to a permanent international criminal court.

The legacy of the Holocaust is still with us. The ICRC operated International Tracing Service located in Arolsen, Germany, every year handles hundreds of thousands of requests for information from survivors of the Holocaust or their descendants. Last year, Arolsen received such requests essentially from Eastern Europe. Needless to say that the ICRC will continue to provide this important humanitarian service for as long as there is a need.

I now come -last but by all means not least- to the question of the emblem: red cross, red crescent and of course the red shield of David. As a means to ensure that the rule of international humanitarian law is enforced, the Red Cross Movement believes that the question of the protective emblem is a vital one. As you know, there is a serious problem linked both to the existing diversity of protective emblems -namely the red cross and the red crescent- and the fact that other symbols -notably the magen David adom- are not conventionally recognised as legally valid. This is seen as discriminatory by some. From the start of the Movement there was in fact only the desire to establish the universality of a single distinctive protective emblem, representative of the secularity, independence and therefore effectiveness, of a lasting protective tool. An emblem that should not have a religious connotation, and this is why in 1863 d iplomats attending the first Geneva Conference proposed the Swiss flag with inverted colours. 

I would again like to stress that red cross should not be perceived as having religious significance. Yet we are well aware of, and sympathetic to, the sensitivities that have been expressed, both within Israel and in other countries, to the use of the red cross. The introduction of other emblems in the past - the red crescent, the red lion and sun - is evidence of these sensitivities. At the same time multiplying emblems reduces their power of instant recognition and in countries may lead to a serious dilemma as to which emblem to adopt. The ICRC takes these issues extremely seriously. We are well aware that the MDA Society has been using the Red Shield of David in its life-saving work even prior to the creation of the State of Israel and that the its conventional adoption in 1949 was only narrowly defeated. It is a matter of regret that the issue of the emblem prevents formal recognition of the MDA and of other valued societies elsewhere.

In 1992 I proposed the creation of a new culturally neutral third emblem. I am pleased to say that this idea has taken root. A set of proposals by the Standing Commission - the representative body of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement - are to be presented to the whole Movement. These include ideas of great imagination which I sincerely hope will lead to a satisfactory conclusion for all. Ultimately however any change will lie with the Geneva Conventions, which governs the use of protective emblems, and with those responsible for its wording - States themselves. It is to be hoped that they will move forward to a solution which will ensure the universality of the Movement and the better protection of the victims of armed conflict, and thus permit the ICRC to recognise an excellent Society as the Magen David Adom.

Yet, despite this controversial matter of recognition, the ICRC has been able to mainta in a cordial working relationship with the de facto Israeli National Society. I myself paid several years ago the first official visit of an ICRC President to the Magen David Adom, that continues to have my full respect and admiration.

A thread has run through my speech tonight, it was the thread of law; of international humanitarian law, the thread of protection owed to the innocent of conflict. I have illustrated some achievements that were the creation as much of the ICRC, as of the enlightenment of responsible societies that, however tardily, made such respect possible. I also spoke of the most terrible failure of the ICRC and the international community. A failure made all the more terrible in that in more recent times, despite the legal tools available, despite the information that reaches all of us through the media, despite our profound awareness of the horror of genocide, the world was blind again and seemingly powerless in the face of renewed and massive atrocities.

Paradoxically, on the threshold of a new century, we are legally better equipped than mankind has ever been to cope with the contingency of war. But to maintain the high humanitarian standards modern society has defined for each of us, there is a ongoing struggle against those who believe that atrocities inflicted on others are, by definition, foreign and so will not be moved. In the face of such inertia, the ICRC will continue to defend and promote the ethics of humanitarianism as much as it will continue to provide all the assistance and protection that is in its power to provide. It is the duty of all of us to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of the past. It's a question of will. Tonight, I pledge to you, that the ICRC will do its utmost not to fail the future.

My personal motto may help us in this direction: Steadfastness, Rigour, Humility !

[Ref.: EXSO 97.09.15-ENG ]