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Note for humanitarian organizations on cooperation with international tribunals

31-03-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 853, by Kate Mackintosh


Kate Mackintosh
is international humanitarian law adviser to Médecins sans Frontières-Holland. 

Humanitarian organizations are in a privileged position to observe what happens in war. Perhaps with the exception of war correspondents — “embedded” or otherwise — no other individuals from outside the conflict area get to see what goes on in its midst. Medical humanitarian organizations will often be exposed through their work to the detail of violence committed against civilians; but all humanitarian organizations operational in conflict are likely to witness the brutal effects of the fighting.

It is not surprising then that as tribunals — international or otherwise — are set up to try atrocities committed during a war, those tasked with bringing the perpetrators to justice turn to humanitarian organizations to see what evidence they can offer. For many such organizations, and the people they employ who may have personally witnessed atrocities, the question of whether or not to cooperate with prosecutions is fraught. On the one hand, many support, and even promote, the establishment of war crimes tribunals and the bringing of war criminals to justice, all the more so if they themselves have had contact with the victims of these crimes. On the other hand, and from a more organizational perspective, they worry about compromising neutrality, forfeiting access to victims and putting themselves and their staff at risk.

This article sets out the legal tools available to humanitarian organizations to control any cooperation with international tribunals. It addresses such questions as: can humanitarian organizations be forced to testify? Can they hand over information on a confidential basis? And if they do give evidence, can this be kept out of the public domain?


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