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The ICRC in Asia: Special challenges?

31-03-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 841, by Jean-Michel Monod

 Jean-Michel Monod is Deputy Director of Operations and Delegate General for Asia and Latin America, International Committe of the Red Cross .


Asia. An immense continent. Breathtakingly diverse in civilization, history and way of life. Where do its boundaries lie? The Pacific islands and the Mediterranean? This is a continent with no recognized frontiers. The following observations relate to what most people think of as Asia, leaving out the Middle East and Iran, but including Central Asia. This is the definition the ICRC uses for structuring its operations in this region.

The 1970s and 1980s were particularly difficult years in East and South–East Asia, owing to the emergence or continuation of major armed conflicts there. With the legacy of the Korean and Vietnam wars and of Pol Pot’s rise to power in Cambodia, the start of the Timor crisis and the serious problems in Mindanao (southern Philippines), not forgetting the 1965 Indonesia crisis and the smoul-dering conflicts in Laos and Burma (now Myanmar), East and South-East Asia have been the scene of never-ending upheavals with far reaching consequences: divided Korean families, Vietnamese Boat People, Cambodian refugees, hundreds of thousands of people displaced almost everywhere, plus victims of anti-personnel mines and other explosive devices. All against the backdrop of ideological confrontations born of the Cold War. Such was the grim reality throughout that period fo r victims and humanitarian workers alike.

Soviet Central Asia was still unknown territory for international organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental. Meanwhile, the unresolved Kashmir conflict, the Afghan war and the bloody clashes in Sri Lanka were transforming the whole of Asia, from Afghanistan to the Pacific, into one great battlefield.

So how much could the humanitarian agencies do? How widely did the parties to those conflicts accept humanitarian work as carried out by the ICRC, neutrally and impartially, favouring confidential dialogue over public condemnation, yet seen all too often as Western and hence capitalist — because virtually all the donations which made it possible came from the West — or even as Christian? Compared with the enormity of the task, opportunities for action were limited indeed.

 The ICRC in Asia during the Cold War  

The Communist governments refused to accept the ICRC during the Korean and Vietnam wars. As a result, it did not play a decisive role in providing protection either for the civilian population, for prisoners of war or for other detainees. Similarly the ICRC was unable to do its humanitarian work in Laos during the war there or in Cambodia during the Pol Pot era. It was not allowed to operate during the vicious 1965 clampdown in Indonesia, and only much later did our delegates obtain permission to visit the tens of thousands of detainees scattered across the archipelago. The ICRC was expelled from East Timor when Indonesia took control of the territory in December 1975, only returning — with great difficulty — three years later. In Cambodia, the Vietnamese military intervention in 1978 enabled humanitarian work, primarily the distribution of relief supplies, to take place there for a short period between 1979 and 1981. Ac tivities then became severely restricted in the interior of the country, and eventually were limited to the Thai side of the border until 1990, when humanitarian agencies were finally able to resume credible operations in northwestern Cambodia. By contrast, protection and assistance operations in Mindanao (Philippines) were generally quite successful and have had to be maintained — unfortunately for those affected – to this day, the level of activity varying with the intensity of the conflict.

The situation in southern Asia and Afghanistan was not much easier. While both India and Pakistan eventually acknowledged the applicability of the four Geneva Conventions to their 1965 and 1971 conflicts with reasonably good grace, they did nothing to open up the region to humanitarian organizations during all the periods of tension between the “official” international armed conflicts. Access was not granted until 1995, when visits began to certain places of detention in the Indian part of Kashmir. They were and are, moreover, of benefit only to the detainees, and not to the civilian population as such. This situation certainly restricted the ICRC’s ability to act during the summer 1999 Kargil clashes.

In Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion of 27 December 1979 did not allow humanitarian activities to be deployed as they should have been. The commando-style incursions of the “French Doctors” based in Pakistan were an exception. While their impact in terms of tangible effects for the victims of the conflict is open to discussion, they did have the virtue of focusing the world’s attention on the Afghan conflict. Those expeditions, which often included journalists, helped to arouse quite unique media interest in the conflict, a continuing interest shown to this day in the coverage of the Taliban phenomenon. Most humanitarian work, however, had to stop short at the border — mainly the Pakistan side of it — and was confined to assisting refugees. Not until 1987 was the ICRC really able to launch a full-scale operation to assist various categories of conflict victims inside Afghanistan itself (wounded, prisoners and amputees).

The Sri Lankan authorities refused the services of the ICRC during the first part of the Sinhalese/Tamil conflict (19831989). The final phase of the Sinhalese/Sinhalese conflict (October 1989) between the government and the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) had been reached before they opened the door, and only when the ethnic conflict resumed in May/June 1990 was the ICRC authorized to help the victims, after so many years had been wasted.

 What lies behind these difficulties?  

The inability of the ICRC to do more for the victims of conflict in Asia during the entire Cold War period is, in our opinion, due to a number of factors. As we shall see, some of them have little to do with the ideological differences of the period.

  • Humanitarian work, especially that of the West, generally did not go down well with the Communist (i.e. totalitarian) regimes and their allies. This factor was not specific to Asia, however, as it affected Cuba and the former Soviet Union as much as it did North Korea and China.

  • For as long as it lasted, the East-West divide had a direct impact on the humanitarian policies of the donor countries. Their primary aim was to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the system by encouraging entire sections of the population to leave their countries of origin (e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan), and to paint the other side even blacker by promoting humanitarian action in the immediate vicinity of the conflict. Today, conflicts have largely lost their ideological connotation, and those same donor countries, in an effort to protect themselves from the economic consequences of having to accommodate waves of refugees (there being little talk these days of resettlement in third countries), urge incipient refugees to stay in their wartorn country — they thus become internally displaced persons instead — and ask the humanitarian agencies to work on the spot so that war victims do not leave their homes. In this way the civilian population and humanitarian workers alike are exposed to additional danger.

Other, more specifically Asian considerations should also be taken into account.

  • In general — though generalizations are risky when talking about half the population of the world — Asian society tends to emphasize the group rather than the individual, whereas classic Western humanitarian action takes the reverse approach. This is one source of the divergence between Asian and Western ideas on human rights, a concept with which international humanitarian law is all too often equated.

  • The nationalism of certain peoples and their representatives — very pronounced in some cases and sometimes the result of a traumatic colonial period — coupled with the process of building a nation, mingles with a legitimate pride at belonging to some of the most ancient and glorious civilizations in the world, compared to which Western organizations — however humanitarian — can appear paltry and presumptuous.

  • Many countries were or still are in transition to democracy, struggling against opposition and subjected to outside interference along the way. There is no escaping the fact that the ICRC may be seen as instrumental in bringing this outside interference to bear. Furthermore, the vast majority of conflicts in Asia were and still are internal in nature, which means that the ICRC is in a weaker legal position when asking to work in the conflict zone than it would be in an international conflict.

  • Religion is yet another factor. While all religions have compatible — if not the same — fundamental humanitarian concepts, humanitarian action as we know it does not fit in naturally with Buddhism (viz. the aloofness of the Sri Lanka Buddhist clergy from Western humanitarian action), nor with certain forms of Islam or Hinduism.

  • One aspect specific to the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Asia is the weakness of its internal structures. Apart from a regional group set up by the National Societies of the ASEAN States, there are no regional structures capable of reinforcing the impact of the Movement in general or of the ICRC in particular, despite the fact that here, as elsewhere, membership of the Red Cross or Red Crescent is often seen as prestigious (or at least the holding of senior posts in these organizations is regarded as such) and that Asia ha s some of the oldest National Societies in the world.

  • Rapid economic progress has also created an even wider gap between certain populations, their leaders, and the reality of the suffering caused by conflicts. As a result the sense of solidarity needed to support humanitarian action effectively is reduced.

  • One corollary to the previous point is undoubtedly the low level of financing provided by the Asian countries in general for multilateral humanitarian agencies, a phenomenon that predates the recent economic crisis and is not restricted to the poorer countries.

  • The number of governments influenced or directly run by the military also reduces the impact of international humanitarian action.

  • Owing to several of the above factors, the whole region has a particularly poor record in terms of ratifying the treaties that make up international humanitarian law. Neither India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia nor Japan have ratified the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions, nor have the various recent treaties on such topics as mines met with much enthusiasm, either in those countries or in China. And this list of such countries is far from complete.

  • The size of certain Asian countries, with their major impact on their neighbours’ points of view, is yet another factor; no one can seriously expect to exert any real pressure — economic or humanitarian — on China, India or even Indonesia.

  • The phenomenon of large numbers, a result of runaway demographics, has another side to it. When 250,000 die in Bangladesh in a single cyclone, or 15 million people are affected by a flood in India, the sufferings of the victims of armed conflicts, often fewer in number, are perceived less sympathetically.

 The post Cold War period  

Obviously, the end of the Cold War has not affected all the factors listed, but it has made a difference in certain contexts and has allowed the humanitarian community to establish its credentials. This, in turn, has started to change the behaviour of certain parties.

The Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, which opened the way to the Paris agreements, was one of the turning points. The peacekeeping operation and subsequent repatriation of the Cambodian population waiting across the border in Thailand remain a copybook example: the UN troops really did have a negotiated peace to keep, even though not all parties had actually signed the document; and the humanitarian agencies could organize the return of the civilian population to a country that had been destroyed but in which armed conflict had basically ceased, except in certain areas held by the Khmer Rouge. The last chapter in that story was not written until many more years had passed and their notorious leader Pol Pot had died.

Conversely, it has not so far been possible to arrange for the permanent repatriation of the Afghan refugees, because no negotiated solution to the conflict has yet been found. The end of the Cold War merely led to the withdrawal of one player — the former Soviet Union — without diminishing the ability of the remaining parties to tear each other apart. On the other hand, this new situation did allow the humanitarian organizations to operate on a wide scale across the country, at least until the emergence of armed international fundamentalist groups based in Afghanistan and the international community’s at times kneejerk reactions to the rise of the Taliban somewhat sidelined the war there.

Easier access in Central Asia (mainly in Tajikstan) is directly related to the breakup of the Soviet Union, but while the presence of humanitarian workers in the region is already a victory in itself, a number of the subjects the ICRC would like to discuss, such as the protection of detainees, are not yet really on the agenda (except in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan).

It is difficult to believe that when Sri Lanka opened up to the ICRC at the end of 1989 this had anything directly to do with the major world events of the day. The granting of access to the ICRC (the UNHCR having preceded us two years earlier to run a repatriation programme for Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu) is probably more a successful outcome of the organization’s operational humanitarian diplomacy. Ten years on, that success is unfortunately still not complete, both because hundreds of thousands of civilians are displaced by the fighting every year, and because neither side takes prisoners — or very few.

This “humanitarian breakthrough” in Sri Lanka certainly helped open up Kashmir five years later, an advance all the more important to the ICRC as it was not yet used to dealing with countries the size of India. Such countries have no real need of the ICRC’s image to resist possible political and diplomatic attacks in various multilateral fora as to the manner in which they conduct hostilities.

Gaining access to Myanmar four years later was quite another story, and was the result of ten years of discussions in an unreal atmosphere. This step was all the more important for having been taken against the initial wishes of the donor countries which, yet again, preferred to see the situation in terms of black and white; the ICRC’s actions introduced a shade of grey that did not suit everyone. This was a good demonstration of the ICRC’s independence, showing that it endeavours to gain access to the real victims, wherever they are and whatever the fashionable views may be.

The first conclusion we can draw, therefore, is that while the ICRC has become more readily accepted in certain specific contexts in Asia over the last ten years, the general attitude there towards humanitarian work is only changing slowly. To take one example, it was impossible to do anything for separated Korean families until 15 August 2000, the date on which things started to move thanks to a combination of various types of pressure applied to North Korea and the political courage of certain leaders. We have only to look at the perils of Indonesia where, despite the clear value of the work carried out by the humanitarian agencies in recent years, the attitude of certain — especially former — military leaders, accentuated by the traumatic effect of losing East Timor so rapidly, places the lives of humanitarian personnel in jeopardy, not to mention those of actual and potential victims all across the archipelago.

With regard to East Timor, it would be too simple to see the international operation as an unmitigated political and humanitarian success. Certainly, the crisis and its solution — if it holds — have a dded to Indonesia’s current disarray. It should be recognized that the Indonesian authorities — and, to some extent, the population — were genuinely surprised by the result of the referendum on independence, so comprehensive had the disinformation on East Timor been for years past. The ICRC was in a privileged position, as it had been the only international organization present there during the twelve years of Indonesian administration. All those with whom it had spoken knew what was happening, but were careful not to share their knowledge with others, even within the government. The buildup of bitterness and rancour engendered primarily by the measures imposed by the IMF, which set in motion the process that finally led to the fall of President Suharto, and the subsequent reaction of the international community which forced Indonesia to accept foreign soldiers on what it regarded as its national territory, are two important factors in the spiral of violence suffered by East Timor in 1999. They are perhaps among the hidden reasons for the otherwise incomprehensible forced migration of the population to West Timor.

Second conclusion: acceptance of humanitarian activities is slowly gaining ground, and at the same time the number of open conflicts is not getting any smaller. On the other hand, both in Asia and elsewhere, their underlying character and causes are changing. Religion and ethnic origin are replacing the old ideologies, but do not necessarily make humanitarian work any easier.

 Final remarks  


The degree to which the basic rules of international humanitarian law are applied and the behaviour of the combatants, be they regulars or members of opposition groups, are neither better nor worse in Asia than in the rest of the world. However, a highly developed s ense of sovereignty and an instinctive mistrust of offers of help from a humanitarian organization such as the ICRC or any other humanitarian organization for that matter — two typical features encountered in our work in Asia — reinforce the feeling of a culture gap and slow down progress. These very real obstacles have been the main reasons for the long and difficult negotiations that have almost always preceded the launching of ICRC protection and assistance activities.

Whose fault is it? The ICRC cannot simply hide behind the universality of humanitarian values, leaving the ball in the combatants’ court. A greater willingness to listen and a higher degree of empathy would appear to be the sine qua non of successful humanitarian action in Asia. The continued internationalization of the ICRC’s administration — as opposed to the all-Swiss composition of the governing body, the Committee itself, a guarantee of its independence from any government — can only help. But internationalization limited to the West is not a complete solution, and it is essential that we find a means of opening up more to the countries of the south in order to render the ICRC better able to carry out its mandate. And internationalization is no magic formula. In an increasingly global world, the independence of a humanitarian agency from political influence will remain one of the most important factors in ensuring the success of its work. It is up to all of us to say this loud and clear.