The ICRC since 1970: proliferating needs, activities and risks

13-05-2010 Overview

To meet new challenges and constantly growing needs, the ICRC became a "large" humanitarian organization with a permanent presence on every continent. It had to learn how to deal with serious security risks and the danger of humanitarian activities becoming increasingly politicized.

The 1970s

Civilians being evacuated from combat zones in South Lebanon in 1978. 

Civilians being evacuated from combat zones in South Lebanon in 1978.
© ICRC / lb-d-00029-13

For the ICRC, the 1970s were marked by an increase of its staff (from around 340 in 1971 to nearly 850 in 1979), its means and the geographical sphere of its activities. The organization maintained a long-term presence on all five continents, and its work continued to keep pace with the pattern of decolonization wars, particularly those affecting Portuguese territories in Africa, or with conflicts arising from the indirect confrontation of the two power blocs (in Viet Nam, for example).

Meanwhile, the ICRC also found itself working in the context of lengthy regional conflicts (in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Angola, for example), which influenced its perception of war and its long-term working methods. From the end of the 1960s, as military regimes came to power in different parts of the world, the ICRC expanded its work on behalf of political detainees.

Another major development during that period was the increase in the risks encountered by ICRC delegates and members of other humanitarian organizations in the field. The growing number of those organizations – some of which adopted partisan attitudes – as well as the increasingly sustained presence of the media at the heart of the conflicts led to new kinds of behaviour among belligerents, which did not hesitate at times to target humanitarian workers.

From the legal perspective, these were the years in which the international community adopted two Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions (June 1977) to increase protection for the victims of international or non-international armed conflicts. Those two documents are the direct outcome of the experience gained by the ICRC in the various colonial wars.

The 1980s

The following decade saw a veritable proliferation of the ICRC's activities, with the total number of staff increasing from 1,580 to more than 5,200 by the end of that period. The number of ICRC delegations around the world doubled, and numbered around 50 by the early 1990s.

The ICRC had to deal with the consequences of every kind of armed violence: international wars (Iran/Iraq), internal conflicts (Mozambique, El Salvador, Chad, etc.), internal disturbances (Philippines, Nicaragua, South Africa, etc.), and decolonization conflicts (Timor Leste, Namibia). The question of providing assistance for refugees also arose, the problem being symbolized at the time primarily by the tragic cases of the Palestinians and the Vietnamese boat people. Meanwhile, the media intensified their war coverage; at the same time – perhaps because of the media coverage – civil society was becoming more aware of worldwide disasters, irrespective of whether they were human or natural in origin.

The 1990s

The fall of the Berlin wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led to a large number of new internal conflicts, particularly in former Soviet territories (Tajikistan, Caucasus, Moldova, etc.) but also in several African States (Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone) as well. As for Europe, after 45 years of peace, it was once again the scene of fighting (Balkans).

Those wars, some of which looked rather like ethnic cleansing (Bosnia) if not outright genocide (Rwanda), involved an increasing number of players as the fighting went on. The large number of weapons bearers made the work of the humanitarian organizations, and particularly of the ICRC, increasingly dangerous.

In parallel, the ICRC also had to deal with the outbreak of new international wars (such as the Gulf crisis) while continuing to deal with the aftermath of past fighting. Given the large number of scenes of conflict, the question of displaced persons or refugees began to assume gigantic proportions.

Another major challenge which faced the ICRC in the 1990s was the instrumentalization of humanitarian action by politicians and/or members of the armed forces. As the distinction between the different types of agency was blurred – which makes them synonymous in the eyes of belligerents – new problems related to security arose.

With regard to legislation, the ICRC was involved in projects aimed at preventing the use of weapons which cause unnecessary suffering, particularly among civilians (e.g. blinding weapons, anti-personnel mines and clusters bombs).

Finally, the ICRC also found itself involved in post-conflict activities, the aim of which was to provide economic security or health care for people emerging from many years of war.

The 2000s

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States marked the start of a slide towards a new type of conflict that is said to be part of efforts to combat terrorism. That new war paradigm led to large-scale international operations against States that were said to shelter or support terrorist activities (Afghanistan, Iraq) and, more generally, to a hardening of attitudes in several countries in which violence was endemic (Algeria, Philippines, Yemen, Uzbekistan, etc.).

All that had implications for the ICRC, which found that governments were even questioning the legal principles underpinning its humanitarian mandate. Apart from extremely violent armed clashes in some places (Iraq), that questioning made its work on behalf of the victims even more difficult. Since the early 2000s the ICRC has paid special attention to a particular group of victims, women and young girls, who are the primary targets of sexual violence during armed conflicts.

Another particular feature of the decade, vast international mobilization – also at the level of charitable activities – in response to major natural disasters (e.g. hurricane Katrina, tsunamis and earthquakes) or in connection with conflicts given extensive media coverage (Darfur) meant that the ICRC had to take up a new position on the humanitarian scene without ceasing to emphasize its difference from other organizations that are also working in the field of international aid.