The university in a society vulnerable to violence: Solidarity and humanitarian mobilization

 11th General Assembly of the Association of European Universities (CRE), Berlin, 26-29 August 1998  

 Keynote address by Dr Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 28 August 1998  

 Introductory remarks  

Allow me first of all to say how pleased I am to be with you here in Berlin, a city rich in history that has brought forth humanitarian initiatives whose influence has spread far beyond the borders of Germany. I am thinking, for example, of the enthusiastic reception given by an international congress on statistics to a proposal put forward by Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, that mobile field hospitals be granted neutral status. He was so encouraged by this mark of support, even before the first International Conference of the Red Cross, that in 1863 he sent out, from Berlin, a circular proposing neutral status for military medical personnel and first-aid volunteers, an idea which is saving lives to this day. I am thinking too of one of the early International Conferences of the Red Cross, held in Berlin in 1869. It was a resolution adopted at that Conference that led to the establishment of the Central Tracing Agency, which still renders indispensable services, particularly in enabling members of dispersed families to restore contact with their relatives.

Thus, Mr Secretary-General, it was with the greatest of pleasure that I accepted your invitation to come and speak on the occasion of the 11th General Assembly of the Association of European Universities.

I was well aware that I would be addressing an attentive audience, and that this meeting would help us to maintain and, I hope, strengthen relations between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the academic world. On the personal level, I am delighted to have this opportunity to meet the representatives of universities which have honoured me with academic titles and the many others which have invited me to give lectures.

What I have been asked to do is to reflect on the role of the university in a society marked by violence, and on the ways in which the challenges facing the world today can be met through solidarity and humanitarian mobilization.

I shall endeavour to do this by sharing with you a few thoughts on the concerns and doubts raised by the dire situations that the ICRC has to face in present-day armed conflicts.

I shall also describe the main forms of cooperation established between the academic world and the ICRC. Finally, I shall review the reasons why the ICRC would like – with your help of course – to strengthen its relations with the academic community.

 The role, nature and mandate of the ICRC  

Before proceeding to a more detailed examination of how the institutions you represent can help the ICRC to respond more effectively to the challenges posed by contemporary conflicts and to the human tragedies they cause, I should first like to offer a reminder of the nature of the ICRC, the basis for its action and the values it has been defending for more than 135 years.

The history of the ICRC began on a battlefield at Solferino on 24 June 1859. Henry Dunant, a businessman from Genev a then aged 31, had travelled to northern Italy where the Emperor Napoleon III was leading his forces against Austrian troops. Dunant hoped to meet the Emperor and seek his support for a project to construct mills in Algeria, a territory colonized by France some decades earlier. The Emperor was obviously far too busy with the war to receive Dunant, who had been rather naive to imagine that he would be granted an audience under such circumstances. However, arriving in Solferino as the battle raged, he was about to witness a spectacle which would change the whole direction of his life: a frenzy of carnage which in a single day left 40,000 soldiers dead or wounded and abandoned to their fate.

So overwhelmed was Dunant by this sight that all thought of the Algerian project – which ended a few years later in a resounding bankruptcy – was driven from his mind, and he set about improvising first aid with the women of neighbouring villages. It was there, in the Chiesa Maggiore of Castiglione delle Stiviere, that the women of Lombardy, all volunteers, forged the principle of the impartiality of humanitarian action with the words "tutti fratelli". Dunant returned to Geneva a few days later but remained haunted by the memory of this experience and in 1862 published A Memory of Solferino , a powerful work in which he recalled with vivid realism all the horrors of the battle. However, he was not content simply to express outrage and indignation. Inspired by the action he had taken with the inhabitants of the villages of Solferino and Castiglione to succour wounded soldiers of all sides – French, Italian and Austrian – without distinction, he launched a momentous proposal: that in all countries societies be formed to tend the wounded in wartime; and that an international treaty be adopted to recognize the immunity and neutrality of the medical personnel bringing aid to the wounded under the prote ction of a single emblem, which was later designated as the Swiss flag with its colours reversed: the red cross.

The book proved an immense success and Dunant travelled throughout Europe to win over the continent's rulers to his cause. On 17 February 1863, with the support of four prominent citizens of Geneva – two doctors, Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir, a lawyer, Gustave Moynier, and a soldier, General Guillaume-Henri Dufour – he founded the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which a few years later was to become the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). At the request of the Committee, the Swiss federal government convened a Diplomatic Conference which, on 22 August 1864, adopted the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, signed by 12 States. This marked the birth of international humanitarian law, the legal basis for the action of the ICRC; the principles of neutrality and impartiality which have always guided that action were laid down and the mandate of the institution was clearly defined.

This first Geneva Convention was the foundation stone for the much more extensive structure of international humanitarian law which has been built up since and is now embodied in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols adopted in 1977. Throughout our century this body of law has had to be expanded and adapted to the realities of wars made ever more bloody by technological advances in weaponry and by the upsurge of totalitarian and racist ideologies. This development of humanitarian law brought about through the efforts of the ICRC was, at the time, intended to address three major concerns. In the wake of the Second World War, there was a particular need to extend to the civilian population the protection which States had hitherto afforded only to wounded military personnel and prisoners of war. The second aim was to broaden the scope of international humanitarian law to cover internal conflicts and wars of national liberation. Finally, the scale of devastation caused by war had to be limited by regulating methods and means of warfare, especially the indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction and attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the population.

This very brief look at the past gives an insight into how the ICRC, the promoter of humanitarian law, came to be entrusted with its mandate by the States party to the Geneva Conventions, now numbering 188. This mandate, which is international in scope, has a twin focus: on the one hand, to ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions on the part of belligerents, and on the other, through impartial action, to provide protection and assistance for the victims of conflicts, whether prisoners of war, the wounded or civilians. Thus the ICRC plays a dual role, conducting humanitarian operations under a mandate conferred on it by States, and protecting victims from those same States when they are in conflict.

There is another reason why ICRC, a simple association under Swiss private law, independent of government and composed of co-opted Swiss citizens, was entrusted with its mandate. In the eyes of belligerents, the fact that the ICRC is a private institution and that its members are all of the same nationality is the best guarantee of its political independence and humanitarian impartiality.

A few telling figures, however dry, will serve to indicate the scale of the task now facing the organization. In 1997, with a budget of around 500 million US dollars, the ICRC:

*maintained a permanent presence in 54 States, and conducted activities through its 1,000 expatriate and 8,000 local staff in nearly 80 countries;

*visited more than 205,500 detainees in some 1, 680 places of detention;

*forwarded more than 400,000 family messages and helped reunite over 25,000 people with their families;

*distributed upwards of 87,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid, worth US$ 92 million, in 47 countries;

*performed almost 14,000 surgical operations, and produced more than 13,000 artificial limbs for conflict victims, most of them maimed by anti-personnel mines;

*conducted various programmes for the dissemination of international humanitarian law. To cite just one example, the programme launched in 1994 to spread knowledge of humanitarian law in schools of the Russian Federation has reached over 2.5 million pupils. The course textbook, in Russian, was prepared by the ICRC working in close cooperation with Russian education specialists, and draws examples from the rich literature of that great country.

 The ICRC's links with the academic world  

The links between the ICRC and the academic world are both natural and close.

They are natural because most of the members of the Committee and ICRC staff are themselves university graduates – some indeed are distinguished professors – and many remain in contact with the academic community.

As we shall see, these links are also close. The ICRC regularly relies on the expertise of the academic community and associates academics with most of the studies and research it carries out, not only in the area of law but also in medicine and international relations, to mention but a few examples. For their part, academics regularly approach the ICRC to test their theories against our operational experience.

It must also be said that relations between the ICRC and the universities can become a little more complex, as the confidentiality we undertake to respect is sometimes seen as restricting academic freedom. However, I am sure that some of the measures we have taken recently – such as providing free access to all documents in our archives dating back fifty years or more – will help establish even more relaxed and fruitful relations.

I should like now to dwell for a moment on the close links that already exist between the ICRC and the academic world and to consider some new forms of cooperation which could be developed. Let me mention the domains in which the ICRC has found it essential for many years to count on the expertise of your institutions, namely, the development of international humanitarian law, the interpretation of its provisions and also the endeavour to understand the main trends emerging in the international community.

 The development of international humanitarian law  

I referred earlier to the role which the ICRC has traditionally played in the development and the necessary updating of humanitarian law. This is a task to which the ICRC, today more than ever, attaches the greatest importance, as demonstrated by various examples drawn from recent events.

You will, of course, be well aware of some of these. I am thinking in particular of the setting- up of the future international criminal court – a matter on which the ICRC has worked for decades with the International Law Commission and the General Assembly of the United Nations – and of the recent campaign to ban the use of anti-personnel mines, which culminated in the adoption of an ad hoc Convention in Ottawa in December 1997.

Other significant developments have received less publicity. I refer, for example, to the adoption of rules and principles relating to the prohibition of blinding weapons, and to the question of the applicabilit y of international humanitarian law to peace-keeping operations.

All these developments have one point in common: they are the outcome of research which was launched by the ICRC and brought to fruition thanks to the essential contribution of academic experts.

 The interpretation of international humanitarian law  

Like any other body of law, international humanitarian law is subject to an ongoing process of interpretation. The ICRC takes a very active part in this process, particularly as the 188 States party to the Geneva Conventions have entrusted the ICRC with the role of guardian of this body of law.

It was in that capacity that the ICRC was invited, on the occasion of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1995, to carry out a systematic study on the content of customary law applicable in armed conflicts. In conducting this study, which is currently under way, the ICRC is receiving vital support from academic experts from more than 40 countries.

I referred earlier to the operational reasons why the International Committee needs to preserve its single-nationality composition. A corollary of this is the absolute necessity for mechanisms to keep the ICRC abreast of all the various phenomena that characterize today's world. To this end, the ICRC has sought the collaboration of several groups of high-level international advisers and experts, most of whom have direct links with the academic world.

From these few examples we can discern a pattern in the contributions of the academic world to the activities of the ICRC. Thus the university may serve as a trigger or a catalyst: its representatives launch discussion on a humanitarian issue and provide the necessary input, while the ICRC sustains the debate and places it on a formal foot ing.

In other circumstances, academic experts may serve as facilitators, using their reputation and credibility to persuade States to accept certain developments in the law.

Sometimes too, the experts will agree to act as agitators. Through their contacts and their commitment, they can bring the pressure of public opinion to bear on governments so as to secure acceptance of advances in the protection of the victims of armed conflict, as a reaction to intolerable affronts to human dignity.

Finally, the universities can play a role to which I personally attach the greatest importance, namely that of criticizing, or even censuring, the ICRC's activities. I firmly believe that, in order to test the validity of our operational policies and to draw the necessary conclusions from past experience, we must rely on a truly scientific methodology; in other words, one which is free of all preconceived ideas.

To take just one example – admittedly a particularly painful one – I feel duty bound to emphasize what valuable lessons for its present-day action the ICRC has learned from certain uncompromising historical studies analysing the weaknesses to which it fell prey during the Second World War. This has prompted me to say for some years now – and to repeat before you today in Berlin – how much I regret the possible errors and omissions of the Red Cross during a period which saw the failure of an entire civilization, particularly in relation to the Holocaust.

It is not my place to sit in judgement on my predecessors. I just want to stress the importance of serious historical research in helping an institution like the ICRC to avoid the recurrence of certain shortcomings. For this same reason, the ICRC is anxious to keep alive the memory of all the victims and to proclaim, loud and clear: "Never again!"  

The most highly developed and perfect legal provisions will remain ineffective unless they are made known to those for whom they are intended. International humanitarian law is obviously no exception to this rule, and the universities can make a vital contribution to the task of dissemination. Indeed, though we may take heart from the growing interest in this body of law, the extent to which it is taught still leaves much to be desired.

The ICRC decided to tackle this problem by stepping up its contacts with representatives of higher education and making a range of resources available to them. These may take the form of teaching materials suited to university requirements (a casebook is now in preparation). It may also be necessary to provide courses for all teachers whose training in this field is inadequate or outdated. More rarely, the ICRC may hold courses for students, preferably at postgraduate level (for example the courses run at the Universities of Moscow, Harvard, New York, Geneva and Nairobi). In other cases, it works with certain faculties in order to reach specific audiences, such as diplomats or members of the armed and security forces.

All these efforts are directed to a specific aim, namely to ensure that the decision-makers of the future – most of them trained in your institutions – are aware of the existence and relevance of humanitarian law and realize the importance of respect for this body of law.

 Why does the ICRC want to establish closer cooperation with the academic world?  

I have already had occasion in the past to enumerate the many reasons why the ICRC has sought to cooperate with the academic world, and obviously all those reasons still hold good today. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a number of factors, which I shall now try to identify, indicate th e need for a substantial intensification of this collaboration.

1. The growing complexity of the conflict situations in which the ICRC works obliges it to engage staff who are better trained and well informed in an ever-wider range of areas. That means not only lawyers, doctors, engineers and people with language skills but also ethnologists, geologists, and specialists in management and information technology. If the ICRC is to be able to recruit the staff it needs in the future, or indeed to contribute to their training, it will need to acquire a far more thorough knowledge of the academic world.

2. Universities will continue to be the principal centres for the training of the future elite who will, in due course, be called upon to implement, to respect and to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. We have already seen that this body of rules – which derives from moral principles common to all religions – relates to each and every one of us, but development of the law and ensuring compliance with its rules is a difficult task without support from political, economic and military leaders.

 Accordingly, the ICRC, joining forces with yourselves, has to make every effort to see that, when the decision-makers of tomorrow pass through university, they acquire a basic knowledge of humanitarian law and understand the major issues involved in humanitarian action. As for those who have not been fortunate enough to have a university education, or who may never even have learned to read and write, they are subject to the influence – often negative, but sometimes positive – of the educated elite.

3. The universities have very close links with the world of politics and industry, both of which play an important role in the course of contemporary conflicts. The intellectuals who educate the elite of tomorrow may well act as consultants to the elite of today. Here then are two good reasons for keeping alive the dialogue between those intellectuals and the ICRC. In this era of globalization of markets and communications, the universities must be in a position to foster the globalization of responsibility.

4. The situations with which the ICRC has been faced in recent years are characterized by the emergence of new players, new methods of warfare and new forms of conflict. Reflecting on the question as to whether there has been a change in the nature of warfare, the philosopher Umberto Campagnolo remarked: " War remains possible in our world. However, it appears that it is no longer what it used to be: a means of resolving an international dispute. Even though the nature of relations between peoples organized into States has not changed (…) it seems that a new element has entered war (...) One might even think that, as the means of warfare have changed in nature, so indeed has war itself… " .

 While these sentiments were expressed during the Cold War, it seems to me that they remain entirely valid today. In particular, they demonstrate how important it is to give constant thought both to the form and nature of contemporary conflicts and to those who take part in them.

 Through its operational activities, the ICRC has accumulated a vast amount of information on new forms of conflict, so vast indeed that the organization is not always capable of assimilating it. The ICRC also has first-hand knowledge of the health, sanitation and nutrition problems of societies affected by viol ence.

 With its own store of knowledge, its capacity for analysis and proposition and its networks of contacts, the academic world is far better equipped to sift and order this mass of data. I am convinced that this is another domain in which our cooperation can and must be stepped up, and that through such cooperation humanitarian law and action can be better adapted to a constantly changing world.

5. Today, the humanitarian organizations are having to face daunting challenges. These include the problem of ensuring the safety of their staff; the fact that their activities, their working methods and even their very raison d'être are being called into question; and the sheer scale of the tasks which the international community nevertheless continues to entrust to them.

 In these circumstances, the humanitarian organizations need to listen carefully to those around them and to respect and become profoundly familiar with the environment in which they operate – without merging into that environment, for they must always preserve their own identity. All this requires empathy, intellectual honesty and openness to others.

 The academic world can help the ICRC and in particular its delegates in countries in conflict to achieve a better understanding of the cultures, religions, ways of thinking and customs of those with whom they are dealing. An increased reliance on national staff, educated in the universities of the countries concerned, should also favour the development of programmes tailored to the local context, especially in the area of dissemination of international humanitarian law.


By way of conclusion, I should like to quote a maxim of Cicero's: "There are two ways of settling a dispute: one is by discussion of the reasons of both sides, and the other is by force. The former is appropriate to human beings, the latter to beasts."  

Two thousand years later, it must be admitted that human societies have not yet succeeded in substituting discussion and dialogue for brute force. On the contrary, many recent conflicts – in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, to mention but a few – have been marked by an ever-mounting spiral of wanton violence.

There is still, therefore, a pressing need for the activities of humanitarian organizations, especially institutions which are specifically neutral and independent, as is the case of the ICRC. There is no prospect of any decrease in their task in the near future. On the contrary, with all today's political, economic and demographic disparities, I feel that the work of the humanitarian organizations will continue to grow in scale and complexity. To deal with these crises, the ICRC needs the support of everyone, representatives of civil society as well as official bodies. The universities for which you are responsible are thus directly concerned.

I have endeavoured to pinpoint certain ways in which the synergy between our institutions can be increased. I have no doubt that other important proposals will emerge from your discussions, enabling us to provide the victims of armed conflict with even more effective assistance and protection.


 Ref. EXSO 98.08.28-ENG