Cambodia: history of ICRC activities


The ICRC first operated in Cambodia between 1965 and 1975, working in close cooperation with the Cambodian Red Cross Society to provide assistance and protection to civilians affected by armed conflict. The ICRC returned to the country in 1979 and has been operational ever since. Currently, the organization focuses on detainee welfare and physical rehabilitation for the victims of mines and unexploded remnants of war.

1968 The ICRC donated this mobile clinic to the Cambodian Red Cross in Battambang province.    
  ©ICRC/M. Mercier/kh-d-00007-16    
1975 An ICRC-supported hospital in Kompong Chhnang    
  ©ICRC/M. Mercier/kh-d-00008-02    
1975 A temporary sick bay set up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, by the ICRC and closed by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.    
  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/kh-d-00031-12    
1979 The Red Cross distributing rice on the outskirts of Battambang.    
  ©ICRC/J.-J. Kurz/th-n-00158-08A    
1980 Refugees arriving at the Nong Chan refugee camp.    
  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/th-n-00253-08    
1988 The ICRC tracing office in Bangkok, Thailand, was opened in 1975.    
  ©ICRC/S. Corrieras / kh-d-00038-05    
1991 An ICRC delegate records a tracing request in Sisophon District.    
  ©ICRC/S. Corrieras / kh-n-00065-36    
1992 ICRC delegates interview detainees in a Phnom-Penh prison.    
  ©ICRC/ J.-J. Kurz / kh-h-00060-31A    
1992 ICRC delegates recording the release of detainees in Phnom Penh.    
  ©ICRC/D. Paaptanti / kh-e-00256    
2009 Physical rehabilitation centres take their services to patients in remote villages of Cambodia.    

The ICRC began working in Cambodia in 1965, mainly to assist victims of the war in Vietnam, but had to leave in 1975. On returning in 1979 it concentrated on emergency operations. In the 1990s, it focused on supporting the country’s reconstruction and recovery effort.In 2000, the ICRC handed over responsibility for tracing to the Cambodian Red Cross.



1965 - 1975  


From 1965, when the ICRC began operating in Cambodia, until 1970, it concentrated on responding to the needs of people affected by the war in Vietnam. At the time, frequent clashes due to a border dispute between Cambodia and the Republic of South Vietnam resulted in heavy casualties, both civilian and military. The ICRC supported the Cambodian Red Cross in providing medical treatment to the wounded.

After the coup d'état in 1970, the ICRC, together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (then called the League ) and some twenty national Red Cross Societies, launched an emergency operation to assist the tens of thousands of displaced people with food, relief items and basic medicine. The ICRC had to leave the country after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975.


1979 - 1989  


A couple of m onths after the arrival of Vietnamese troops in Phnom Penh in mid-1979, some international organizations, including the ICRC and UNICEF, were allowed to return to Cambodia. In August 1979, the two organizations began a joint emergency operation to deliver food, water and medical assistance to the hundreds of thousands of people in need. By the time it ended in December 1980, the operation had distributed some 250,000 metric tonnes of food.

As part of the operation, the ICRC concentrated on developing emergency medical assistance. In view of the massive destruction in Phnom Penh and in the provinces, the reconstruction of medical infrastructure was a priority. The ICRC worked with the support of medical teams from many national Red Cross societies who deployed professional staff in a number of provincial hospitals as well as in the surgical hospital that the organization had established in the Kao I Dang refugee camp on the Thai border in 1980.

The ICRC also developed its tracing activities as the war had left thousands of family members separated from each other. The activity involved searching for missing people on the request of their families in Cambodia and Thailand, making it possible for separated family members to exchange and reuniting them whenever possible.


   See the film A question of relief (made in 1979).

  Read also an interview with François Bugnion, the first ICRC delegate allowed back in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  

1990 - 1999  

In October 1991, government forces and the opposition coalition signed a peace agreement. The following year the repatriation of refugees from a major refugee camp at the Thai border (Khao I Dang) started. However, shortly after the 1993 elections, fighting resumed in northern and western Cambodia, particularly in Pailin. It was only in 1999 that Cambodia experienced its first year of full peace.

During this decade, ICRC carried out a major operation covering all its traditional fields of activity: visits to detainees in prisons and police stations; tracing missing family members; providing medical assistance, including orthopaedic activities; and promoting IHL and the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross among the armed forces and other selected members of the public.


2000 - 2009 


Since 2000, the ICRC has carried out its activities in Cambodia through its regional delegation in Bangkok. In this post-conflict period, it continue s to support government ministries and other institutions and organizations.

Estimates put the number of people with physical disabilities in Cambodia at over 150,000. Accordingly, the ICRC now concentrates on its physical rehabilitation project which includes the: Battambang Regional Physical Rehabilitation Centre; Phnom Penh Orthopaedic Component Factory; and since 2004, the Kompong Speu Regional Physical Rehabilitation Centre formerly run by the American Red Cross.

Around 15,000 patients benefit annually from prostheses, orthoses and physiotherapy treatments provided by centres and from the services of the physical rehabilitation sector, which gets all its components from the factory.


The ICRC assesses the treatment and conditions of detention of prisoners and discusses its recommendations with the authorities. In 2003 it resumed water and sanitation projects in prisons and later increased its support to boost the authorities’ capacity improve water, sanitation and health facilities for detainees on remand.

After handing over responsibility for tracing to the Cambodian Red Cross in 2000, the ICRC's tracing service in Bangkok (which holds all Cambodia tracing files from 1975 onwards) continued to cross-check tracing requests with its archives.  The ICRC started to scan all tracing files in 2005, to ensure their conservation.


The ICRC is supporting the Cambodian Red Cross in promoting IHL and the Fundamental Principles and carrying out mine action and orthopaedic activities.