Conflict in the Balkans: Human tragedies and the challenge to independent humanitarian action

31-03-2000 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 837, by Pierre Krähenbühl

 Pierre Krähenbühl   is an ICRC delegate. During the Kosovo crisis he was head of the Task Force Balkans at ICRC headquarters. He holds a degree in political science and international relations.  

The sight of endless columns of distraught men, women and children, on tractors or on foot, carrying the fewest of possessions with them, had an air of chilling familiarity in the Balkans of the 1990s. Images of Vukovar, of Srebrenica and of the Krajina came to mind. This time the place was Kosovo, where the break-up of the former Yugoslavia is commonly considered to have begun and where inter-communal violence had inexorably returned. Tens of thousands of persons were fleeing for their lives, fearing the worst for relatives left behind and facing the prospect of being uprooted for a prolonged period of time. Behind their apparent anonymity lay countless individual destinies, family and community legacies, that were being irreparably shattered. Once again, the most brutal forms of violence were being turned against civilians and new historical and emotional fault-lines carved into the region's collective memory.

The international community, repeatedly criticized for its lack of decisive action in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia- Herzegovina, had hard choices to face. The negotiations at Dayton, while bringing an end to the Bosnian war, had failed to address the Kosovo question in any specific manner [1 ] . The emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in the years that followed, its growing capacity to hit at the Serbian security force s and the latter's increasingly indiscriminate operations had put the future of Kosovo back at the top of the international agenda. In the early autumn of 1998, the Yugoslav leadership, facing the threat of air strikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), had accepted the deployment of some 2,000 members of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) under the authority of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). By Christmas of that year, however, the truce appeared to be unravelling and the search for a solution shifted to Dayton-like talks convened at Rambouillet in France.

The reasons for their failure remain a subject of controversy. As a result, however, the Balkans were propelled into a chapter quite distinct and unprecedented in nature and in scope. On 23 March 1999, the NATO Secretary-General authorized air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with the declared aim of putting an end to ethnic violence in Kosovo. It was the Western alliance's first active military engagement in its fifty-year history. Almost within hours, a campaign in Kosovo that showed every sign of a policy to expel the population of Albanian origin from the province was launched by the Yugoslav armed and security forces. This combination of conflicts -- one internal, the other international -- was to have far-reaching consequences, first and foremost in human terms. But it was also to assume great significance in the political, military and humanitarian fields.

The present paper looks at some of the main challenges, both operational and conceptual, that the 1999 Kosovo conflict has raised from the perspective of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It will place particular emphasis on the dilemmas faced in dealing with the consequences of ethnic violence and on the interaction with military alliances such as NATO in this environment, as well as pointing out some of the implications that this conflict has had for humanitarian action in general and independent humanitarian responses in particular. While focusing clearly on the events in 1999, the paper will nevertheless draw on earlier experiences in the Balkans in order to place recent developments in their regional and historical context.

 The ethnic cleansing process and the moral dilemmas  

The ICRC began its activities in the Balkans ten years ago as a result of growing disturbances in Kosovo. In 1990, its delegates started visits to detainees, many of whom were of Albanian origin, in prisons throughout the then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Thereafter came the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with their distressing toll of people killed, detained or forcibly displaced. More and more the ICRC delegates were faced with the traumatic consequences of the process known as “ethnic cleansing”. Particularly unsettling was the realization that the instruments of international humanitarian law provided no overall response to this brutal form of warfare. Indeed, the very notion that civilians or persons no longer taking part in combat should be spared and allowed to remain in their homes is one that the logic of ethnic separation turns upside down. Distinctions between civilians and combatants disappear and every means becomes authorized in the attempt to uproot the “other” and to erase in the process any trace of his or her personal, communal, religious or social past.

This development has placed countless staff members of the ICRC, expatriate and local, in an acute dilemma. On the one hand, they could decide to evacuate civilians facing direct threats to their lives to other parts of a country or abroad -- and run the risk of being blamed of contributing thereby to the very process of ethnic cleansing. They could on the other hand turn away in despair -- and face the prospect of being accused of i ndifference towards people in grave danger. In most cases their response to this dilemma has been to do whatever was in their power to save lives.

In its activities to protect civilians, the ICRC has been successful on numerous occasions. Over the last ten years it has visited some 48,000 detainees in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It has helped to restore contact between persons separated by conflict by forwarding over 18 million Red Cross messages and, in the case of the Kosovo crisis in 1999, by using the latest technological facilities such as satellite phones and the Web. There have been thousands of families reunited and prisoners released under the auspices of the ICRC. At the same time, there have been tragic failures to protect civilians in many other places. While Srebrenica does not stand alone , it certainly stands apart in terms of the international community's collective inability to ensure protection for thousands of men, women and children who were brutally murdered or forcibly displaced. The ICRC shares part of that responsibility.

In Kosovo, many of the parameters and patterns of violence were similar. When tension in the province increased in March 1998, the ICRC rapidly stepped up its operational capacity to meet growing needs in terms of assistance and protection. Over the next three months the number of staff rose from two to thirty expatriates and from half a dozen local colleagues to over a hundred. Since the effectiveness of this fast expanding operation hinged on proximity to those people most urgently requiring Red Cross help, a high degree of mobility in the field was of paramount importance, together with an ability to operate both in territory under the control of the Serbian forces and in areas believed to be KLA-held.

This was possible to a large extent throug hout the most severe phase of the conflict, between late June and late September 1998. The KLA was mounting ever more daring operations, including the temporary seizure of towns such as Orahovac/Rahovec in early July. The Serb forces for their part were retaliating with operations that were driving more and more civilians out of their homes and villages. Some 20,000 sought refuge in neighbouring Albania and over 120,000 were believed to have been displaced inside Kosovo or to the Republic of Montenegro. The ICRC field teams were providing much needed relief to several tens of thousands of displaced persons, in particular to those hiding in remote forests on the mountain sides. Mobile medical teams composed of Kosovo Albanian doctors and ICRC nurses travelled across the lines to give medical treatment to the wounded unable to reach the province's hospitals. The ICRC also expanded its protection work, visiting a growing number of prisoners held under the authority of the Serbian Ministry of Justice. By early 1999, close to 900 such persons were being visited on a regular basis. In parallel, Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians were being registered as unaccounted for. The Serb community in Kosovo had reported some 140 persons as abducted, allegedly by the KLA in the summer of 1998.

The increasingly violent events, which included selective killings of civilians, raised real concern about a return to the most drastic forms of ethnic warfare. Aware of the dilemmas faced in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as of the potentially devastating consequences for countless human beings in such a precarious environment, the ICRC considered the possibility of going public in order to give the parties directly concerned an incontrovertible reminder of their responsibilities. The ICRC is commonly perceived as not outspoken enough in the face of extreme acts of violence witnessed by its delegates in a variety of contexts. In general it does indeed opt first and foremost for access to people and places a ffected by humanitarian problems, rather than for more public forms of intervention. It is also keenly aware that speaking out about violations certainly does not automatically imply better protecting those exposed to the violence. No conflicts in recent history have received such intense media coverage and international public and political scrutiny as those in the Balkans. Despite this, the logic of ethnic separation was all too often carried through to its bitter conclusion. On the other hand, there was the belief that after so many atrocities, an organization such as the ICRC had a moral obligation to alert public attention to an escalating tragedy. [2 ]

In the period between the deployment of the KVM personnel (from October 1998) and the beginning of the peace talks in Rambouillet (February 1999), the ICRC operation continued to focus on assisting countless persons unable or fearing to return to their homes. Particular emphasis was placed on the issue of visiting prisoners and accounting for missing persons. In effect, as negotiators prepared to assemble at the French château , the ICRC was busy submitting proposals on these matters for inclusion in a possible agreement. Preparations were being made in the field and at headquarters to deal with the priorities of a Dayton-like post-conflict environment in Kosovo. But matters were to turn out very differently.

 An international armed conflict begins

As the second round of Paris-based talks broke down, there were growing signs of the imminence of military action by the NATO alliance against Yugoslavia, the most tangible one being the withdrawal of the KVM monitors who had played a significant role in stabilizing events over the previous six months. As the decision of the Secretary-General of NATO to authorize air-strikes drew nearer, the ICRC was having to define its priorities and modus operandi for what would be an unprecedented situation. First, it prepared to notify the different parties, the 19 NATO member States and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia of the full applicability of the four Geneva Conventions and of their obligations thereunder. Secondly, it confirmed the vital necessity to operate in close proximity to those most affected. In other words, the ICRC decided to keep international and local staff operational throughout Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. In the latter region, a team of 19 expatriates were kept on standby in anticipation of the many needs to come. It was never thought that their task -- or for that matter the task of their colleagues who remained in Belgrade and Podgorica -- would be easy. Anti-Western feelings generated in the Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina during NATO strikes in September 1995 had given an indication of possible reactions, although the intensity of the attacks in the case of Yugoslavia was incomparably higher. It nevertheless came as a serious disappointment and setback when a combination of factors, including an increasing presence of uncontrolled elements in the streets of Pristina and objective security constraints on the mobility of the staff based there, forced the ICRC to withdraw its team from Kosovo on 29 March 1999.

As events unfolded with unthinkable speed and Kosovo Albanian refugees began crossing into Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia), it became apparent that the broader humanitarian community would be dealing with a crisis of daunting proportions. This led the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to adopt an integrated and regional approach so as to better mobilize resources -- both human and material -- from within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent M ovement and allocate them in the most efficient way possible. Thanks in part to this approach, the Red Cross was able to respond to needs both inside and outside Yugoslavia. Indeed, the capacity both to provide relief and medical support to refugees fleeing Kosovo and help tens of thousands arriving in Albania, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro to establish communication lines with their relatives, and to assist people affected by the NATO bombing raids in Yugoslavia or to visit NATO prisoners of war held in Belgrade, was a unique feature of the Red Cross operation. It was its distinct added value.

Kosovo remained the painful exception after the 29 March withdrawal. Throughout the following weeks, the ICRC's priority was to negotiate its return to Pristina; a top-level commitment to this effect was given by the Yugoslav leadership during a visit by the ICRC President to Belgrade on 25-26 April. The actual resumption of operations in the province began on 24 May, three weeks before the end of the conflict and the deployment of the international security force KFOR. [3 ]

 Interaction with military forces and crisis management

Beyond the operational challenges and decision-making, the Kosovo conflict was unprecedented in several respects as regards handling it. One salient feature of the recent Balkan wars in general has been the staggering degree of attention they have attracted, both politically and through the media coverage of their diverse phases. This gave rise to a constant and at times very strong pressure on all players to demonstrate their ability to take action.

The results in the field of crisis management were of varying nature. Crisis management may be defined as the combination of pol itical and possibly military action on the one hand, to deal with the causes of a conflict, and of humanitarian action to address the consequences of situations of violence on the other. In the Bosnia- Herzegovina conflict, the dividing lines between these forms of intervention had become blurred. In many ways the deployment of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), despite many of its real achievements, had come to exemplify the reluctance of the international community to seize the political high ground. UNPROFOR was given an impossible quasi -humanitarian role, which generated confusion between military and non-military forms of humanitarianism. Matters were finally clarified somewhat during the run-up to and the negotiating of the Dayton peace agreement. From the treaty's provisions, agreed to by the respective former warring parties, emerged clear mandates for the NATO-led Implementation -- and later Stabilization -- Force (IFOR and SFOR). The ICRC interacted with it in a variety of fields, namely the process for the release and transfer of prisoners at the end of hostilities, the issue of missing persons, the threat posed by anti-personnel landmines, etc. There is no doubt that from this interaction a more predictable dialogue and a better understanding emerged.

As the Kosovo crisis flared again in early 1999, the international political community and the Western military alliance seemed intent on acting more decisively and rapidly to curb the excesses of ethnic violence. Furthermore, as tens and then hundreds of thousands of refugees began flooding into Albania and FYR Macedonia within days of NATO launching its air campaign, its member States declared their intention to reverse the impact of ethnic cleansing and ensure a swift return home for the Kosovo Albanians.

In the meantime, though, there was the priority of providing assistance to the fleeing refugees. The solidarity shown by the population in Albania and FYR Macedonia was in many ways exemplary. The scale of the displacements was nonetheless stretching the capacity of the respective governments beyond limits. This most visible effect of the Kosovo conflict -- the mass population movements -- had not been anticipated in such numbers by any of the players involved, be they political, military or humanitarian. Responding to those huge displacements was to prove one of the most critical issues in the early phase of the crisis and brought with it a further novel trend. The militarization of humanitarian assistance in the case of Yugoslavia went further than anything experienced in the case of UNPROFOR in Bosnia. NATO contingents deploying in Albania and stationed in FYR Macedonia were establishing camps for refugees, handing them over subsequently to non-governmental organizations, and at times continuing to ensure security around the perimeter. Military personnel became involved in attempts to reunite families and in several other forms of relief provision. NATO also made some of its vast logistic resources available to humanitarian agencies to transport their own material into the region more quickly.

This development has prompted much debate. On the one hand there are claims that without the mobilization many of those in need would have faced extreme hardship or worse, and on the other there are the voices that express concern about the lack of distinction between humanitarian and political forms of intervention. The ICRC belongs to the second category, and on several occasions its President made known the organization's position on principle that the two issues must remain separate at all times. For those of us dealing with the operational coordination of field activities, NATO's humanitarian Allied Harbor or Shining Hope operations had some of the following implications.

First of all, it should be stressed that from the very outset of the international armed conflict, NATO headquarters agreed to establish direct and separate communication lines for the ICRC. This positive development was seen as an acknowledgement of the predictable interaction in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In concrete terms, it gave the ICRC a channel to review security concerns, to intervene with NATO on the conduct of hostilities and the humanitarian consequences of its bombardments and to discuss openly some of the more contentious questions faced in the course of the war.

There was, however, a very significant difference between the type of relations existing with IFOR/SFOR and those with the NATO units involved in Operation Allied Force , owing to the dissimilar nature of the operations carried out. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the NATO deployment was the result of a negotiated settlement, signed by former warring parties in Dayton and Paris and confirmed by means of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Whether the respective authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina were at ease or not with all of the agreement's provisions, they had committed themselves to their implementation. The ICRC had been given its own tasks under Dayton [4 ] and these provided for a significant latitude for interaction with NATO contingents that were part of the peace-building

In the Kosovo conflict, the circumstances were very different from an ICRC perspective. It was easy to understand why many Western governments, involved in the military campaign against Yugoslavia and aware of the impact that the harrowing scenes from Kosovo were having on public opinion, felt compelled to mobilize some of their resources to ease the dire plight of tens of thousands of refugees. But NATO units were no longer in a peace-implementation mode; they had become parties to a conflict, something that was bound to have an impact on the type of interaction that could be envisaged by the ICRC. The decision to be operational inside and outside Yugoslavia meant that the ICRC would have to rely on its own, separate logistics set-up. Seen from Belgrade, the distinction between NATO's military operation and the humanitarian activities it was carrying out in northern Albania was not self-evident. Since the ICRC has been given a responsibility by the community of States to respond to all needs resulting from a conflict and to engage in humanitarian diplomacy on all sides, it had to be perceived as separate from the different forms of State-driven humanitarian intervention.

At times, this position is viewed as making too many concessions to the party held responsible for countless violations of international humanitarian law in Kosovo. This is because all too often, humanitarian action is reduced in people's minds to the mere -- albeit important -- act of delivering assistance. Here the ICRC is fundamentally different, for in addition to relief distributions its delegates in the field carry out a broad range of what are known as protection activities. They seek to obtain access to prisoners of war; when violations occur they contact the authorities with the aim of changing patterns of behaviour by security and other forces; they seek to reunite dispersed families and search for missing persons. The fact that no framework was maintained in which the ICRC could carry out these activities in Kosovo was a very negative development. On the other hand, the ICRC President was the first in April 1999 to confront the highest Yugoslav leadership directly with findings -- including firsthand accounts -- concerning the behaviour of the armed and security forces in Kosovo at the very time when such violations were being committed.

There was no protection for civilians inside Kosovo during that dramatic period from March to June last year. Neither on the ground, nor from the air. To go back to Kosovo in order to make an -- albeit modest -- contribution to improving that situation was a top priority for the ICRC. This meant negotiating a return, and negotiating it in Belgrade. The ICRC was occasionally asked whether it was not naive to believe that it would be allowed back, considering the disastrous circumstances on the ground. In the heat of the moment, this was felt to be an entirely theoretical question. Thousands of men, women and children were in the open, without shelter, and their lives were in extreme danger. Each and every ICRC delegate felt impelled to make a determined bid to reach them. There is a strong conviction that the ultimately successful outcome of the approaches and negotiations in Belgrade -- and the possibility to return to Pristina as the war was still raging -- was due in no insignificant part to the independence of the ICRC's operation.

 Challenges for independent humanitarian action

There are many other reasons why nothing will ever quite be the same in the field of humanitarian action after the 1999 Kosovo conflict. The way in which the conflict developed, the scale of the crisis and the fact that its every facet was under political or public scrutiny has generated a broad and critical lessons-learned debate. There are several aspects that deserve an attentive and open review.

For a start, within days of the conflict erupting in late March a great deal of criticism was levelled at international humanitarian agencies for their apparent lack of preparedness and for their slow response to the mounting refugee crisis in Albania and FYR Macedonia. Several commentators have pointed out that but for NATO's extensive mobilization of resources, the situation would have been very critical indeed. Other observers have raised the question whether this crisis did not in effect signal the end of independent forms of humanitarian action.

From an ICRC point of view, there is no difficulty in acknowledging that it and most other humanitarian organizations were overwhelmed by the speed and scale of events. It did take several days for the ICRC to establish an operational capacity in Albania, where field staff grew from two to over 70 expatriates and local staff from half a dozen to over 200, and in FYR Macedonia, where the proportionate increase was only slightly lower. The feeling is that it was not so much preparedness that was lacking, for the ICRC had a strong set-up throughout Yugoslavia with a proven operational capacity, but rather that the planning process centred on the wrong scenario. In hindsight, it is clear that expectations of a successful outcome at Rambouillet had been exaggerated. It is probably fair to say that in this regard the ICRC was not alone. In addition, even if the prospect of a spiralling conflict in the aftermath of Rambouillet had been taken into better account, it would have been impossible to put contingency stocks in place for, say, half a million refugees without raising alarm, or eyebrows, in many circles.

Speed is also a very relative notion. In relation to the Balkans, an environment considered by the West as close and strategic, the pressure to be present and perceived as operational in the shortest possible amount of time is overwhelming. There are many other contexts in which for a variety of reasons, some political, others logistic, humanitarian responses are slow in developing. Arising in what are in contrast viewed as more remote corners of the globe, such situations attract less attention and result in less pressure for speed.

Of greater significance is the question of the appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency of the various responses to the crisis. The integrated and regional approach adopted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is currently being evaluated by a team of independent experts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has conducted an independent review of its own operation. This increased reliance on detailed assessments of the management and impact of humanitarian operations should contribute to greater transparency and is a trend that ought to be explored further. To the best of my knowledge the relief activities carried out by NATO have not to date been independently reviewed. That also would be an important contribution to the overall debate.

The Kosovo conflict has set a further milestone in the ongoing argument between the advocates of a “right to intervene” and those who uphold the principles of independent humanitarian action. The former see such a right as a new form of solidarity shown by some peoples towards others being oppressed by their State or authorities. This solidarity can result in political and/or humanitarian action in which moral principles outweigh classic notions of State sovereignty. The Kosovo conflict, with the subsequent deployment of an international security force and the establishment as provided for in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (10 June 1999) of an international civil administration in the province, is currently viewed as the most recent and clear-cut example of this new trend.

It is considered particularly significant that this line of thinking, translated into action, has allowed the almost complete return of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, something that the international community had largely failed to achieve in the case of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This massive and speedy return of so many dispossessed and traumatized people was both unexpected and positive. Unfortunately, e ven this form of political intervention has not yet found an answer to the true malediction of Balkan conflicts, which has caused so much irreparable pain and lasting hatred: the policy of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the victory of the Western alliance has enabled the Kosovo Albanians to return home but it has not, despite the deployment of 40,000 KFOR military personnel and between 10,000 and 12,000 civilians within the framework of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), found the key to restoring inter-ethnic dialogue and cohabitation. A very large number of Kosovo Serbs and members of the Roma and other communities have in turn faced eviction and murder or have disappeared without trace.

These observations should on no account be seen as a superficial criticism. The complexity of responding to the types of atrocities witnessed in the Balkans in the last decade cannot be underestimated. Nor can the major attempt currently being made in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo by the international community to bring greater stability to the region. The intention is merely to underscore the fact that the many different forms of crisis management adopted in the region in the last ten years have failed to curb the very logic of ethnic separation. The “right to intervene” has, in my opinion, changed little in that regard.

Interestingly, one outcome has been the confirmed need for independent and neutral humanitarian responses. To give but one example, it is worth analysing the situation of detainees held in Serbia as a result of the internal conflict. Unlike the Dayton peace agreement and the Rambouillet document, no provisions on the release of prisoners or the search for missing persons were incorporated in the Military Technical Agreement (MTA), signed by NATO and the Yugoslav Army on 9 June 1999 or in Security Council Resolution 1244. This has left Kosovo Albanian detainees transferred out of Kosovo at the end of hostilities in a kind of political and legal vacuum ever since. The ICRC negotiated with the Serbian Ministry of Justice in July 1999 to obtain access to them. Consent was given, and the ICRC has visited some 2,000 detainees and restored contact between them and their relatives in Kosovo; about 1,000 of them had been reported as missing by their next of kin. In the meantime, over 350 of the total number of detainees have been released and transferred under ICRC auspices back to Kosovo. Similarly, in the search for missing persons [5 ] , the fact that the ICRC is in formal contact with the authorities in both Pristina and Belgrade was considered to be a major asset by UNMIK, which recognized the lead role of the Red Cross in both the prisoner and missing persons issues.

Ultimately, the prisoners'situation can be resolved only at the political level. This is a clear indication that the humanitarian dimension does have its own limits. It does, however, have a lot to offer in relying on its own distinct attributes.

Another characteristic of the ICRC's operational philosophy is also relevant to the discussion about coherent and effective humanitarian action, namely the principle of universality that governs the work of the Red Cross. Political and military action may be selective, whereas the ICRC's mandate requires it to try to be present and carry out its activities on all fronts. It goes without saying that there are countries in which the ICRC has tried in vain for several years now to become operational, faced by the reluctance of the authorities or problems of perception. Its delegates are nonetheless working today in well over 40 parts of the world, where conflicts are often taking place far from Western or other television cameras. They include such complex environments as Colombia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Algeria. These are places that have not witnessed -- and are not likely to witness -- such massive military interventi ons as was the case in Kosovo. Yet the people affected will be just as much in need of support and protection.

Kosovo did absorb a disproportionate amount of resources in comparison with so many other situations in which the suffering was equally if not more acute. For the ICRC, as for many other organizations, there was the challenge of maintaining a balance in terms of mobilization. Significantly enough, none of the staff who had to be mobilized for the Balkans conflict were withdrawn from any of the ICRC's African, Asian or Latin American operations. It can consequently be said that while a considerable amount of attention will sometimes be devoted to one particular event or place, many other tragedies will continue to require a humane response.

 A legitimate humanitarian gesture?

Thus the challenge to independent forms of humanitarian action during the Kosovo crisis was real, and the ultimate consequences are difficult to anticipate in their entirety. Each and every individual involved should attach prime importance to their ability to question their own performance and the capacity of their team and organization to achieve the objective of protecting and assisting those most in need. None of the players on the ground had an overall view, all had their weaknesses and failures. This includes the ICRC.

To my mind, there is a more substantive issue at the heart of this ability to question: what is it that leads us to believe that humanitarian action is legitimate by definition? It may seem bizarre to challenge the principle, recognized as sound across so many cultural divides, that helping someone else in need is noble beyond the shred of a doubt. The right to be assisted and protected in war is the very essence of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, and they have been ratified almost universally, so why re-open that discussion?

There is obviously no intention here to suggest that the moral and philosophical foundations upon which humanitarian action is based should be called into question. On the contrary, it is the way in which humanitarian work is carried out in so many places that deserves critical reviewing. The legitimacy of the humanitarian gesture is intimately connected with the ability to consider the “other”, the person in need, as a human being, something which the repeated use of the expression “victim” tends to make more difficult. It strips of all human dignity the man, woman or child whom it is supposed to define. Of even greater concern is the apparently widespread inability to recognize that in order to be truly legitimate, the humanitarian gesture must be seen and felt as a potentially two-way process. In other words, a sincere attempt to place oneself in the other person's shoes, trying to understand how profoundly unsettling or humiliating an act of assistance may be under certain circumstances and to accept how painful it can be to have to rely on an outsider, is crucial. In essence, it means believing that some day one may oneself require assistance or protection in one form or another and imagining how one would then wish to be treated.

Today, humanitarian action on a worldwide scale remains the preserve of a limited number of mainly Western aid agencies. This has fostered a perception that the West is almost naturally at the giving end, that humanitarian action takes place from north to south and that it is a one-way street. There, rather than in some of the more visible implications of the Kosovo crisis, lies the real danger to the future of humanitarian action in general and independent humanitarian action in particular. It is a risk that the militarization of humanitarian responses will certainly not help to avert. Nor will an increased r eliance on a presumed “right to intervene”. All too rarely is any serious thought given to the fact that the situation may one day be reversed by others deciding to act on this “right” themselves.

Admittedly, the ICRC has nothing to be complacent about. It, too, is perceived in a number of contexts as an affluent Western, Christian organization, working from a Geneva-based headquarters that has given it an identity alien to so many cultural environments around the globe. Like others, the ICRC must accept a burden of proof to the contrary. However, it may have a unique opportunity of addressing this long-term challenge. First of all, by becoming a truly nomadic institution, less attached to its place of origin, not necessarily at home in any one place but very much so wherever it operates. Secondly, by engaging itself more genuinely in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. This extraordinary worldwide network of National Societies in 177 countries has the unparalleled potential of making the humanitarian gesture into a process that gives the communities concerned a sense of sharing in it, of belonging as partners. There is no need to idealize these National Societies, which have weaknesses and contradictions of their own, but in the Balkans, as in so many other conflict areas, things would be very different for the ICRC were it not for the National Red Cross Societies of the countries directly concerned.

It is often asked how the ICRC could preserve its identity in such a process. Contrary to some expectations, the partnerships with the many National Societies from third countries, as well as those of Albania, FYR Macedonia and Yugoslavia, were in fact a vital aspect of the ICRC's identity in the Balkans. They contributed to an image of the Red Cross in action and significantly broadened the overall response. Effective management of that partnership process brings genuine added value to the ICRC's operations.

Of the many lessons of the Kosovo crisis, that most European of wars, finding the key to enhancing the legitimacy of humanitarian work in conflicts around the world may well be the one with the most far-reaching consequences. Rediscovering that “what is good for the other is good for me” could do a great deal for the renewal of independent humanitarian action.


1. For an account of the Dayton peace talks and the references to Kosovo therein see, inter alia , Richard Holbrooke, To End a War , Random House, New York, 1998.

2. A position paper was prepared and released on 15 September 1998. See “ICRC position paper on the crisis in Kosovo”, IRRC , No. 325, December 1998, p. 725.

3. For more insight into specific aspects of the activities carried out by the ICRC, by the International Federation and by the
many National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies involved, see the ICRC's website:

4. The provisions in the Dayton peace agreement referring to the ICRC were published in IRRC , No. 311, March-April 1996,
pp. 243-245.

5. At the time of writing, the number of persons registered by the ICRC as unaccounted for is 2,900, consisting of 2,400 Kosovo Albanians, 400 Serbs and a number of Roma, Montenegrins, etc.

Abstract in French