The neutral intermediary role of the ICRC: at the heart of humanitarian action

07-07-2008 Interview

The ICRC's role as a neutral intermediary has enabled it to help countless people suffering because of armed conflict and internal violence. Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC's director of operations, explains what this means in practice.

What is meant by the "neutral intermediary role" of the ICRC and why is it important?  

Neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action in si tuations of armed conflict and internal violence is at the heart of the ICRC's mandate and a fundamental part of its identity. The ICRC seeks dialogue with all actors involved in a given situation of armed conflict or internal violence as well as with the people suffering the consequences to gain their acceptance and respect. This approach generally gives us the widest possible access both to the victims of the violence and to the actors involved. It also helps to ensure the safety of our staff. In this way we are able to reach people on all sides of the frontlines in active conflict areas around the world such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Sri Lanka.

The ICRC's role as neutral intermediary follows on logically from this operational approach. In many cases this entails negotiating humanitarian access with the relevant parties – for example to reach battlefields or hospitals - in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian services to the victims of conflicts.

 Is there a legal basis for the ICRC's neutral intermediary role?  

Yes. It is based on legal provisions in the Geneva Conventions as well as the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The role of neutral intermediary can be in the form of providing good offices or, less commonly, mediation. Either way it requires the consent of all the parties involved before the ICRC can act. The overriding aim is that any action taken relieves the suffering of people whose lives have been disrupted by conflict, and promotes adherence to international humanitarian law – the body of rules that protects those not or no longer fighting.

 How is this implemented in practice? Can you give some concrete examples?  

There are v arious aspects to the ICRC's neutral intermediary role. One aspect is enabling civilians to cross frontlines or to be supplied across frontlines with the goods needed for their survival. In Sri Lanka, for example, the ICRC facilitates the passage of civilians and goods between government-controlled areas and those held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It also regularly transfers the remains of fallen fighters across the frontline to allow their families to bury them.

Organizing the exchange of family news across front lines and borders and, where appropriate, arranging for family reunifications also brings our neutral intermediary role into play. Working with national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we transmit hundreds of thousands of Red Cross Messages every year. They are often the only means of contact between family members separated by frontlines or borders, as well as between families and their detained relatives.

 What about hostage releases?  

The ICRC can at times facilitate the release of people deprived of their freedom, for example people captured by armed groups. In the last year alone, it acted as neutral intermediary in the release of Korean civilians captured in Afghanistan, of Chinese held in both Ethiopia and Niger, and of dozens of civilians detained by armed groups in Colombia. In such cases all parties concerned must consent to our role. However, the role of neutral intermediary does not involve actually negotiating the release of hostages or detainees.

In many cases, the ICRC's role is a complex combination of neutral intermediary – good offices and mediator – and neutral independent humanitarian actor providing direct services, for example to enable the evacuation of wounded people for medical treatment, or the release and transfer or repatriation of people deprived of their fre edom.

 What are some of the main challenges in ensuring that the ICRC is seen to be neutral and independent by all actors involved in an armed conflict?  

Since 11 September 2001 there has undoubtedly been a polarisation in world politics that has led to questions about the relevance of neutral humanitarian action. The fight against terrorism combined with a proliferation of non-state armed groups has made it even more difficult to engage in constructive dialogue on our humanitarian concerns with all the different sides in a conflict.

However, we have no doubt about the importance of the ICRC's neutral and independent humanitarian approach and the role we can play as neutral intermediary. Indeed, an increasingly polarized world is making this approach if anything more necessary than ever.