André Durand: the life of a traveller for the Red Cross, 1912-2008

The career of our former colleague André Durand, who died on 7 March at the age of 96, was marked by courage, perseverance and devotion to the ICRC, the Red Cross as a whole and the ideal of humanity.

André Durand was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, on 13 November 1912, into a protestant family from Colombier, Switzerland. He joined the ICRC in May 1942, during the darkest period of the Second World War, when Nazi Germany and its allies appeared to be winning on every front. He was assigned to the department of the Central Prisoner of War Agency that dealt with the most difficult cases, “sundry civilian internees,” where he endeavoured to follow up on the fate of stateless persons and victims of Nazi persecution. After the war, he was transferred to the central secretariat, and served briefly as a delegate in France.

On 28 June 1948, he left for the Holy Land, where the ICRC was endeavouring to help the victims of the first Israeli-Arab conflict. The second ceasefire negotiated by the United Nations mediator for Palestine started on 17 June. Less than three weeks after his arrival, the Arab high command asked Durand to go and recover casualties from between the lines, north of Jerusalem. As he was advancing into no-man’s land, firing resumed and André Durand was seriously injured. Despite the care he received, his right arm had to be amputated. He had to learn to do everything with his left hand.

Indo-China, 1952. Visiting a camp in Hanoi holding North-Vietnamese prisoners of war.    

This terrible accident did not prevent him from returning to his post in the Palestine delegation following a brief period of convalescence, a post he held until June 1949.

 Twenty years in Asia

After a further period at headquarters, he left for Hong Kong in May 1951. He was to spend the next 20 years in Asia, first as a delegate in Indo-China, then as head of the ICRC’s special mission to Japan and finally, from 1962 to 1970, as delegate-general for Asia.

As delegate-general, he insisted on living in “his zone”. He had no office in Geneva, just a pied-à-terre in Saigon, then in Phnom Penh, from which he covered India, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Ceylon and New Guinea; everywhere the clash of arms was heard, leading what one of his colleagues called “the life of a traveller for the Red Cross.” When a lack of funds forced the ICRC to close the majority of its delegations, he became virtually the sole representative of the organization in Asia. Without large teams of staff, or a budget that would have allowed large-scale relief operations, guided by his ideals and his interest in civilizations that had attained a high degree of refinement long before Europe, he succeeded in creating confidence in countries which, prior to the War, had never heard of the Red Cross, still less of the ICRC.

The large number of conflicts that afflicted the Asian continent did not prevent him from analysing the different situations with a sound judgement that gained the attention of his colleagues. Where nowadays the ICRC would send a team of several delegates to conduct an evaluation, “He had that rare talent of taking in the most complex of situations at a glance,” recalled one of his colleagues. His mission reports and the many notes conserved in the ICRC archives bear witness to this capacity for analysis. For instance, he understood at a very early stage the dead-end towards which the United States was heading through its action in Vietnam, and predicted the disastrous humanitarian consequences that the conflict would inevitably have.

 End of field career and return to Geneva  

Hanoi, Indo-China, 1952. Visiting North-Vietnamese prisoners of war at the camp infirmary.    

As a man of the field, he was not afraid to get out of the capitals and off the beaten track to meet the victims, however remote the location. He once again demonstrated his courage and devotion by travelling for several days through the forests of Laos to meet four American pilots held by the Pathet Lao at a secret, virtually inaccessible location. In New Guinea, he was not afraid to go out in person to bring back prisoners who had fallen into the hands of isolated tribes about which virtually nothing was known, except that they had a reputation as headhunters. The ICRC's archives contain a telegram sent to the organization on 8 December 1961 by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk following Durand's mission in Laos: " Please convey our deep appreciation and that of the United States to Mr. Durand for his outstanding performance in view of great difficulties. He deserves highest commendation for tenacity and dedication far beyond that called for under the circumstances. " These sentiments were echoed three days later in a letter from to Durand from the US ambassador to Laos: " Your dedication in this effort has been above and beyond the call of duty and merits the warmest praise. "

André Durand returned regularly to Geneva to report to his superiors, the Council and the Assembly. While he always showed due deference to the governing bodies of the organization, he never hesitated to alert the ICRC to developments of which Geneva had not understood the seriousness, nor to put his finger on any differences of opinion.

Ultimately, it was these differences that cost him his mission. In the summer of 1970, the ICRC suddenly ended his mandate as delegate-general, under circumstances that left him very hurt.

In retrospect, one cannot help but think that the ICRC would have been better advised to take more notice of the analyses and opinions of its delegate-general, who brought back to Geneva the echoes of the field and the voices of the victims.

 A new career – writing the history of the ICRC  

1967. A stopover at Phnom Penh for two North-Vietnamese marines being repatriated to Hanoi.    

Despite this wound, André Durand did not hesitate to plunge into a new career, putting his pen at the service of the history of the ICRC. Between 1970 and 1977, he wrote the second volume of the history of the ICRC, From Sarajevo to Hiroshima , which was published in 1978 by the Institut Henry-Dunant and translated into English and Spanish.

While he and I were not of the same generation, we did share an interest in history and, in particular, the history of the ICRC. When I was working on my doctoral thesis, we frequently met in the ICRC archives or library, where he was carrying out his research. It was not unusual for him to invite me to his office to ask me about the interpretation of some document. Every time, I was struck by his intellectual rigour – doubtless the result of his training as a mathematician – his care in seeking out primary sources and the sharpness of his analysis.

Formally, André Durand retired in December 1977, but in practice he continued to follow his vocation as a writer. He published a series of excellent articles on the foundation of the Red Cross, the birth of the Fundamental Principles and the subject of peace.

He was also an incomparable speaker of the old school. I shall never forget a lecture he gave in 1985, at the Palais de l’Athénée in Geneva, during the Colloque Henry Dunant. He had chosen a particularly difficult topic, one especially dear to him: the development of the idea of peace in the thinking of Henry Dunant. This question linked in with his own interest in the limits of humanitarian action and in commitment to peace. With remarkable clarity, he succeeded in retracing the developments of Dunant’s thinking which, starting from humanitarian commitment – the amelioration of the fate of the wounded on the field of battle – moved on to attack the roots of war by denouncing nationalism, the spirit of conquest and the arms race.

This lecture was also memorable for the manner in which it was delivered: he spoke without notes, his left hand resting flat on the table, looking his audience straight in the eye, following with precision the plan in his head, speaking eloquently but simply, without repetition or hesitation, but also without giving the impression that he was reciting a text learned by heart. In short, an unforgettable experience.

 Always a new project  

Late in life, he started an ambitious project: a biography of Gustave Moynier. He felt that history had not done justice to the former president of the ICRC. He carried out extensive research and produced a manuscript that constitutes a mine of information.

Sadly, his age and his failing eyesight let him down. Suspecting that his strength would not allow him to complete such a long project, he handed over his manuscript to Jean de Senarclens, whom he authorized to do with it as he wished. Mr de Senarclens reworked and summarized André Durand’s manuscript before publishing it.

The complete manuscript of this important work is conserved in the archives of the ICRC. Fortunately André Duran published a few chapters in the form of articles.

Writer, man of culture, lover of music and art, André Durand also left an anthology of poems, with the enigmatic title Poèmes de l'ambiguïté et de la connaissance (poems of ambiguity and knowledge).

His age and eyesight did not stop André Durand from launching himself into new projects. Last autumn, together with other historians, we worked together on preparations for a colloquium to commemorate the centenary in October 2010 of the deaths (almost simultaneous) of Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier. The aim of the colloquium is to reconcile the memories of the two founding fathers around the theme that André Durand had proposed: “parallel lives”.

 2003: the Henry Dunant Medal  

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/cer-e-00098    
International Conference Centre in Geneva, 2003. Following the ceremony at which André Durand, former ICRC delegate, received the Henry Dunant medal from HRH Princess Margriet of the Netherlands.    
In 1962, the ICRC honoured his remarkable commitment as a delegate by awarding him its silver medal. In 1968, the Japanese Red Cross Society awarded him its gold medal. Finally, in 2003, the Standing Commission awarded him the Henry Dunant Medal, the highest distinction of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

ICRC president Léopold Boissier wrote of Durand in 1962: “ It is no exaggeration to say that when a delegate is on mission, in a sense the whole organization is judged through him. And you have represented the Committee with a distinction, courage and devotion that do it the greatest honour.”

André Durand left us on 7 March 2008, but there can be no doubt that his lifelong commitment to the service of the ICRC and of the victims of war, through his field missions and his writings, will leave their mark on the organization. Nor can there be any doubt that his exemplary life will serve as an inspiration and a model for those who are called to follow in his footsteps.