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A humanitarian crisis of conscience

29-01-2004 Article, Financial Times, by Quentin Peel

The International Committee of the Red Cross has devoted its 140 years of existence to a remarkable humanitarian mission: attempting to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and violence, regardless of race, creed or political persuasion. The symbol of the red cross (and its red crescent counterpart in the Muslim world) represents a brand that is probably more instantly recognisable around the globe than any other. Extract from the newspaper "Financial Times", 29 January 2004.

 Article reproduced on this site with the kind permission of the publisher.  


 The present article does not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC.  

It has for decades been an article of faith of the Geneva-based organisation that it must be neutral, impartial and independent to fulfil its task. It observes strict rules of secrecy to protect its impartiality. For example, it inspects prisoners of war but without revealing their conditions. That is what it has done at Guantanamo Bay.

Yet in recent weeks the ICRC has embarked on an anxious internal debate to decide whether it can any longer maintain that scrupulous attitude. It wants to know whether neutrality, impartiality and humanity still have a universal meaning and a popular resonance. Is it still realistic to claim not to take sides?

The fact that the Red Cross feels forced to discuss such questions is an alarming indication of the degree to which the world has polarised since September 11 2001. It is a consequence of the advent of global terrorism and the US-led " war " in response.

But it is not just a theoretical debate. It has had dramatic consequences, particularly in Iraq, where the I CRC closed its operations after two assassinations and a suicide bombing.

The ICRC's pulling out of Iraq is all the more dramatic because it managed to stay in the country during the bitter Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, then in the first Gulf war. But the situation has changed drastically.

" The political circumstances changed totally after the fall of the old regime, " says one official. " We were practically targeted by proxy. Anything considered related to the western world was resented. "

ICRC workers see it as a two-sided problem that requires a two-sided solution. " There are people of goodwill on both sides, dedicated to humanitarian values, " the official says. " It is not legitimate to see these two worlds in antagonism. "

But the ICRC, like the UN itself, is caught up in the propaganda and counter-propaganda of the " war " on terrorism. " The true nature of the problem is very much related to the concept'you are either with us or against us', " says the ICRC man. " If that is accepted, it is very difficult to demonstrate that there can be a space in between, where you are neither'with'nor'against'. For the sake of humanity, it is essential to demonstrate that there is still a space for neutrality that can be preserved. "

It is the same problem that is confronting the UN, which is agonising over whether it can return to Iraq and supervise elections there while the US-led forces are still in control. Will it not get caught in the middle again?

When the military intervention in Iraq was first mooted, there were three essential arguments to justify it under the somewhat ill-defined concepts of international law. One was the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction; the second was as a humanitarian intervention to prevent further mass killings by Saddam Hussein; and the third was to reinforce the rule of international law and ensure respect for the UN and the resolutions of the Security Council.

The threat of WMD now looks to have been based on extremely flimsy intelligence, and even then exaggerated. It was not an " imminent " threat. So the argument that the intervention was " humanitarian " is now much more prevalent in Washington and London.

In its annual report* this week, Human Rights Watch, the independent New York-based human rights organisation, comprehensively dismissed the humanitarian argument. In particular, this was not an action to stop a mass killing or prevent imminent slaughter, it said. Mr Hussein had certainly been guilty of such atrocities before, notably in 1988 when he massacred 100,000 Kurds. But the western world declined to act. No such evil was looming in 2003.

All diplomatic alternatives to military intervention had not been exhausted; no attempt had been made to charge Mr Hussein with crimes against humanity; there were inadequate efforts to avoid civilian casualties; and the action was not clearly supported by the UN or other international bodies.

Human Rights Watch concludes that calling the action in Iraq humanitarian " breeds cynicism about the use of military force for humanitarian purposes (which) could be devastating for people in need of future rescue " .

So that leaves the argument that the war would reinforce the rule of international law. But it was compromised from the start by the unilateral nature of the US intervention, which was not perceived as legitimate, inside or outside Iraq. International institutions such as the UN and ICRC have been caught in an impossible position. If they are forced to choose sides, they will lose their neutrality and thus compromise their own legitimacy.

It is a situ ation where the end - the creation of a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq - has been tragically compromised by the means - a military invasion led by the world's sole superpower. For those seeking to provide impartial humanitarian assistance, it presents a terrible dilemma.

* Human Rights Watch World Report, 2004, http://www.hrw.org quentin.peel@ft.com