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Endangered in 1945, the ICRC survived thanks to the Cold War and the courage of its delegates

25-09-2007 Article, Le Temps

Catherine Rey-Schyrr has grappled with the history of the ICRC from 1945 to 1955, a troubled period during which the organization paid a high price for its impotence in the face of Nazi barbarity. Before finding a new lease of life. This interview appeared in the Swiss paper "Le Temps" on 17 August 2007.


Catherine Rey-Schyrr    
    Over twelve thousand employees and an annual budget close to a thousand million Swiss francs. Today, the ICRC is a humanitarian giant. It is also an institution that has written its own history. A history marked by ups and downs. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War its future looked bleak, observes Catherine Rey-Schyrr, who has focused her attention on that key period ( Catherine Rey-Schyrr, De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu, Georg, 2007 ).

" The ICRC was able to do effective work for the prisoners of war and civilians in Western Europe. But it did not have access to the Russian prisoners or to the Germans interned in the Soviet Union, which had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. It was able to do practically nothing for the deportees and, most of all, it has been berated for its silence in the face of the extermination of the Jews. 

All these recorded failures were in areas where the ICRC had no legal competence. But that does not relieve it of the moral responsibility that flows from its right of humanitarian initiative. And those who judged them harshly did so all the more readily since the victors included the ICRC in their general reprobation of the Swiss policy of neutrality, which they considered to have been too accommodating of Nazi Germany.

Hostility towards the ICRC was aggravated by its first post-war operations: it attempted to help the German prisoners of war and civilian populations displaced en masse from the liberated European territories, a cause which did not arouse a great deal of sympathy. Finally, the fact that its officials were recruited from the Swiss establishment did not help matters. The ICRC's revered President, Max Huber, had been a member of the Board of Directors of Alusuisse, employer of forced labour in Germany until 1944. "  

 Le Temps: Where did these criticisms come from?   

 Catherine Rey-Schyrr: The most virulent came out of the Soviet Union. But the United States did not take a much kinder view. And, in 1946, Count Folke Bernadotte, then president of the Swedish Red Cross, proposed that the ICRC be internationalized. To make mat ters worse, the organization's finances were in a parlous state. During the war, in addition to the sums made available by Switzerland, the ICRC had lived off moneys paid to it by the belligerent States on the basis of the services rendered to their nations. After the war, the vanquished, who were the only ones in need of its services, no longer had any money to give. The Confederation made up part of the deficit but demanded serious budget cuts. At the start of 1945, the ICRC had over 3000 people on its payroll. In 1948, the number had dwindled to below 400 and by 1955 only 227 remained. 

 How did the ICRC get back on its feet?   

From the start of the Cold War, in 1947, it remained de facto firmly ensconced in the Western camp, where its position and role were no longer called into question. The other side of the coin was that, in spite of all its efforts, it was never accepted as a neutral intermediary by the Eastern bloc countries. This was to hobble its ability to act on the communist side in all the conflicts in which the Eastern and Western blocs faced off, from the Greek civil war to the conflict in Indochina. However, it was successful early on in demonstrating its usefulness on other fronts: in Kashmir at the time of the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan in 1947, and during the Indonesian war of independence. And, above all, in Palestine.

Its work in Palestine began with the Exodus affair. The Exodus was a ship carrying Jewish émigrés whom the British intercepted and sent back to Europe in 1947. No doubt the ICRC was particularly anxious to do something for the Jews whom it had been so impotent to help during the war. 

When disturbances broke out between Jews and Arabs in late 1947, the British authorities asked the ICRC to help them keep hospitals running following the departure of the mostly Jewish medic al staff. It then extended its work as a neutral intermediary to all parties to the conflict and to all victims. It even set up safe areas in Jerusalem. 

 Were these new forms of operation?   

Yes, at least in part. They were conducted by delegates who were willing to take risks and who were able to inspire confidence in their partners. We find them going between the front lines to collect the dead or help the wounded, something delegates had never done before. In classic conflicts where they had been sent until then, it was the army medical corps that did that kind of thing. And it was dangerous work. Several were wounded and one delegate lost an arm. 

 When did the situation stabilize?   

It was a long process. In 1948, a new president, Paul Ruegger, was appointed. He ushered in a new style of management, more proactive and more operational. He went in person to the field and was prompt in seeking to broaden the ICRC's sphere of action to include conflicts outside Europe, particularly in Asia, North Africa and Latin America. 

At the same time, the Second World War had illustrated the need to expand the scope of the Geneva Conventions. New Conventions were adopted in 1949. They formalized the protection of civilians and confirmed the role of the ICRC, which can now take action to protect all victims of a conflict, whether it is international or internal. 

 Has today's ICRC kept something of the spirit of those delegates from the immediate post-war period?   

Its operations have become more professional. In those days, much depended on the delegates'initiative, and their personal commitment and skills were the d eciding factor. Nowadays, training, management, sophisticated means of communication and complex procedures leave less room for improvisation, but make for quality. What remains is personal exposure to risk. With the new type of conflicts, danger is everywhere and can never be banished completely.