Reflections on speaking out or remaining silent in humanitarian activity

 Paper presented to the Second Zurich  Denkpause  by Dr Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC President, Zürich, 27 June 2001  


My choice of subject may have raised a few eyebrows and perhaps a few questions as well. What does it mean? Speaking out in what context? Remaining silent about what? After all, this is not one of the stock subjects of the so-called humanitarian debate which, over the years, has tended to focus on such questions as the following:

  • Under what conditions should so-called " humanitarian intervention " — i.e. State-imposed coercive measures with a humanitarian aim — take place? Indeed, should they take place at all?

  • What is the best way of organizing relations between humanitarian organizations on the one hand and political-military entities on the other?

  • How far should humanitarian organizations go in helping to prevent armed conflict before it breaks out? How long should they remain active once it has ended? The key terms are familiar to you all: " conflict prevention " and " post-conflict action " .

At first sight, the subject may appear quite typical for a Denkpause , and you may even suspect that the speaker himself is taking advantage of the opportunity to indulge in a Denkpause of his own. You woul d not be altogether wrong, for the subject is very much on his mind.

That the topic is not really so far-fetched is clear from the history of the ICRC and from humanitarian literature. For the question of whether — and if so to what extent — a humanitarian organization should publicize and denounce offences against international humanitarian law and other wrongs, and name those responsible for them, deserves our attention . Indeed, it deserves our attention more particularly with regard to the ICRC , as the examples of Michael Ignatieff in Hard choices or Jonathan Benthall in Disasters, relief and the media have   shown. There must be reasons for this and we have to try and explain them. Thus, our subject may also offer unexpected insight into the nature of ICRC activities and the terms and conditions under which the organization operates.

The ICRC is but one of a large number of humanitarian organizations, all of which differ greatly from each other in terms of how they operate and where they are deployed. The sharp increase in the number of these organizations reflects the development in recent times of the humanitarian environment. In any event, the ICRC, with around 12,000 staff — more than 11,000 deployed in the field in areas of armed conflict or tension — is a big organization with a number of special characteristics:

  • In treaties of international humanitarian law, States have expressly transferred certain tasks to the ICRC, either exclusively or together with other unspecified humanitarian organizations. Thus, although the ICRC is not an international organization in the same way as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, it enjoys a lesser freedom in terms of what it may or may not do th an a non-governmental organization.

  • The ICRC's core mission, to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts and internal disturbances, is conducted worldwide and is not restricted to specific areas or groups of people. As you may well imagine , in the age of instant global communications this means that what the organization does, the image it projects of itself — and especially what it says in public — in one place soon becomes known everywhere else that it works. There is little scope for a communication approach which primarily addresses the local level, is possibly tailored to particular moods and essentially pragmatic. .

The organization is absolutely committed to remaining in close proximity to the victims of armed conflict and is unrelenting in its pursuit of this goal. All other considerations — with the exception of security — are strictly subordinated to this goal.

The environment in which the ICRC operates — the war zones and flashpoints of the world — has changed drastically in recent years. It is very important for our subject to keep this point in mind. Many of these " new " conflicts — for the most part civil wars — are characterized by a disregard for the rules, and by belligerents who are as hard to comprehend as they are to contact. " In a civil war " , wrote H.M. Enzensberger in 1993, " every abstract and rationally complex justification for the use of force evaporates " . He was thinking primarily about the Balkans, but the phenomenon is unfortunately more widespread than that. The private warlords who had disappeared from Europe since the seventeenth century are now reappearing in many conflict areas against a background of collapsing State structures. Wallenstein's success ion arrangement seems to be simpler than Schiller's. The difficulty of fitting the complex situations of today's conflict into the categories laid down in international humanitarian law is a further genuine problem. Whereas the basis of the existing law is nationality, membership in a particular group is becoming ever more important than nationality in conflicts.

From the point of view of a humanitarian organization the activities of which are based on rules of international humanitarian law, it is also interesting — with our subject in mind — to deal with the origins, the unfolding and the possible outcomes of conflicts. I mention the following trends and predictions less for their theoretical interest than as a means of indicating areas of possible future operations and the context in which they may take place :

  • the phenomenon of the collapse of (so-called) " unnatural " States (Brian Beedham, The  Economist,  The World in 2001 ) and the collapse of statehood altogether, which was referred to by Reinhart Koselleck in an interview as far back as October 1993 and unfortunately has already become a reality in certain parts of the world

  • the declining readiness of people to obey the laws of the State and to accept authority (Eric Hobsbawm, The New Century )

  • the declining or even totally lacking will to refrain from violence (Peter Stadler, Geschichte als Gewalttat ) struggles for access to sources of energy, other vital raw materials and water as future sources of conflict (Michael T. Klare, The new geography of conflict ). The fact that various African wars are being waged in diamond-rich areas has already led authors to refer to a geopol itics of diamonds.

  • identity conflicts which flourish particularly in an environment of socio-economic misery, decaying State structures and real or perceived discrimination against individual groups of people (François Thual, Les crises identitaires ). Who finally lights the fuse of the identity conflict and with what objective in mind — these are questions that I would prefer to leave open for the moment.

These observations and assumed developments do not suggest that non-State parties to conflicts are likely to decline in importance in the foreseeable future. Nor do they indicate that one phenomenon observed in connection with the so-called " new " conflicts will soon come to an end. I refer here to the widespread contempt for the rules of the international law of war and the total lack of restraint of many parties to conflicts in their actions, especially against the civilian population which is ever more frequently the real target. One of the cornerstones of international humanitarian law — namely the distinction between combatants and civilians — is being called into question in many places. We are confronted with new types of parties to conflicts and new forms of warfare.

It is against this background that the ICRC now does most of its work. In many places, it can no longer be assumed that there will be much readiness to comply with the rules of international humanitarian law or that the organization and its working principles will be known and respected. In many conflict areas, we would be ill-advised to assume that we could count on people trusting in our independence, impartiality and neutrality. All too often, trust in these principles of the ICRC will first have to be won through consistent and thus predictable behaviour, as well as through tirelessly explaining what we are doing. This observation is also of significance for our topic.

The fact that internal conflicts are now the rule has yet another consequence. The legal basis for ICRC activities in international humanitarian law carries far more weight in conflicts between States than it does in internal ones, where concerns over sovereignty are particularly strong. States that have ratified the relevant legal instruments are obliged in international conflicts to allow visits by the ICRC to persons detained in connection with the conflict. The same legal obligation does not apply in internal conflicts such as those in Chechnya and Afghanistan. In such cases, it is necessary to negotiate agreements which are usually temporary and can be terminated. States will consent to these and other agreements only if they are sure that the ICRC will not make public the information it acquires within the framework of its humanitarian activity but will only discuss matters in confidence with the competent authorities. After all, allowing an organization to visit prisoners regularly and to talk with them in private is no small infringement of the sovereignty of a State.

Given the environment in which the organization works and the way in which it operates, the ICRC knows a lot. It acquires this knowledge above all through its humanitarian activity and uses it exclusively for its humanitarian activity. This knowledge is often sensitive, politically delicate and capable of being used for various ends. Thus, there is a serious risk of ill-considered words embroiling the organization in political polemics. The international position which the ICRC enjoys and the sparing use it makes of public appeals and statements lend it considerable weight. The fact that it refrains from making public statements and appeals, even where there is a precedent of a statement having been made in comparable circumstances but in a different place, does not go unnoticed either.

For this reason, " Speaking out or remaining silent in humanitarian activity " is an ICRC issue. By the way, the importance of speaking out — more importantly still, of making public statements — is sometimes overestimated, sometimes underestimated. The age in which we live — loquacious, swift to pass judgment and ever ready to express an opinion — tends to overestimate the impact of speaking out.

The ICRC's position with regard to public statements and appeals is often controversial and has sometimes given rise to fierce debate . The best-known example dates back to the autumn of 1942 when the ICRC refrained from making a public appeal for the protection of the civilian population. The ICRC was harshly criticized for this, especially by Jewish organizations . The critics attached little weight to the fear at the time that such an appeal could lead to suspension of access to around two million allied prisoners of war that were then being assisted. Nor did they attach much weight to the doubts at the time that such a call would lead to any improvement in the situation of the civilian population and particularly the inmates of the concentration camps. In 1988, commenting on Jean-Claude Favez'book, The Red Cross and the Holocaust , the ICRC reaffirmed its doubts about the effectiveness that such an appeal would have had. Other aspects of the ICRC’s behaviour were also criticized.

To certain commentators, conscious of the tension between the determination to act in a humanitarian way and the desire to testify in public, the silence of the ICRC at that time appeared as a point of rupture in the history of the organization: " To preserve this assistance activity, the Red Cross took the disastrous decision not to state what it knew of the extermination camps " (Jean-Christophe Rufin, L'aventure humanitaire ).

However, with regard to this genuine dilemma, the comm entators are far less assiduous in examining the question of what — apart from taking an admittedly important moral stand — can be expected from public appeals under certain circumstances and in considering how their effects on existing humanitarian activity are to be evaluated.

The important thing to realize both now and in the future, particularly for an organization in the ICRC’s position, is that decisions over whether to speak out or remain silent can have far-reaching consequences, not only for the question of whether the ICRC can carry on with its humanitarian activity but also for its image and the way in which it is perceived. For certain groups, the role of a humanitarian organization in the public debate can weigh more heavily than what it does.

When it comes to public statements, the ICRC continues to be regarded as relatively discreet or at least reserved, as it undoubtedly is in comparison with other organizations. However, comparisons can be misleading, given the different tasks and activities of different organizations.

This perception of the ICRC may come as a surprise if you recall, for example, the many public declarations and appeals made by the organization during the Balkan wars. Though it refrained from one-sided condemnations, the public was left in no doubt about what was going on. Let us look at two examples:

In a public appeal to the parties to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in August 1992, the ICRC denounced the detention and inhuman treatment of innocent civilians and called on the parties to take a series of measures, and in particular to comply with the terms of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. The description of the desperate plight of the civilian population was at the centre of an appeal to the belligerents in June 1995 to reach a humanitarian consensus by taking concrete individual measures, such as helping to restore the water supply to Sarajevo and the surrounding area.

In a public statement on the Kosovo crisis in September 1998, the ICRC drew attention to the critical situation of civilians and emphasized that responsibility for ensuring the safety of and respect for the civilian population lay with the Serbian authorities. It called on the Albanian representatives and on the UCK to seek to put an end to reported killings, and called on the international community to draw lessons from the history of the Balkans for the sake of resolving the crisis.

Why am I bringing up these particular examples? Because, while the ICRC does not refrain from public comment, it avoids making one-sided condemnations of individual parties to the conflict — or at least does not condemn them too overtly. While it does not always escape criticism for this approach, it is apparent that this is an area in which the higher intention to provide humanitarian help must not be jeopardized by public declarations. Though I am not saying that this conclusion must always hold, its likelihood is enough for us to proceed with caution.

 As a general rule , I think it is important that the ICRC should play its part in providing public information on the sufferings of the population in war zones and the complexities of today's conflicts. There is plenty of scope for giving information without breaching the confidentiality indispensable for the ICRC’s activities and without joining in the rush to pass judgment.

How can we explain the ICRC's enduring reputation as a " discreet " organization? The organization is criticized for giving absolute priority to carrying out its humanitarian task rather than providing the public with as much information as possible — all the more so as people realize that ICRC staff would have a lot to tell. Our staff are confronted daily with violations of international humanitarian law — in some cases very serious ones — ; a nd they know what is happening to prisoners and internees inside the remotest prisons and camps. Few organizations have such comprehensive inside knowledge of the real goings on, the real conditions in war zones and areas of tension. As we have already seen, one-sided condemnation is not the business of the ICRC. In an age when people are quick to pass judgment and rhetorical gestures of concern and condemnation are highly regarded, this reticence may alienate some or disturb others because it does not fit in with widely held expectations. What characterizes the ICRC is not so much a generally exaggerated discretion as a refusal to pass judgment publicly and to make one-sided condemnations .

Nevertheless, the reluctance of the ICRC to make public pronouncements is undeniable. The reason for this reserve is twofold: on the one hand, the organization is concerned not to lose its access to the victims of conflict and, on the other, it has reservations about the extent to which public declarations can mobilize opinion. The restraint which the ICRC imposed on its staff in dealing with the public during the Biafra war was one of the reasons that led Bernard Kouchner — an ICRC staff member at the time — to help found Médecins sans frontières in 1971 . The " old lady " , as the ICRC was familiarly known in MSF circles, called for too much restraint and placed too many restrictions on the spontaneous expression of opinions.

The chain reaction set off when, in the course of a press conference on 17 May, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel characterized the settlements in the Occupied Territories as a war crime, gives some idea of the widespread picture of the ICRC as an organization that reputedly says too little. It seemed as if, to loud applause and with perceptible relief, the ICRC had joined the modern world and found a new and refres hing readiness to pass judgment. However, it is the consistent practice of the ICRC to establish breaches of international humanitarian law — and Israel's settlement policy is in breach of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — not to qualify the breeches . . The ICRC is not a court. The comment of 17 May was a mistake. The other more significant chain reaction shows what happens when the ICRC departs from the practice referred to above. Not only was its neutrality called into question but painful comparisons were drawn between the readiness to speak out now and the silence of 1942.

The utmost prudence generally needs to be observed in the use of words. Indeed, the very decision whether to make a public statement — and if so where and when — has to be taken carefully. The course of the press conference of 17 May reminds me of the remark once made by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer about language and conversation. Gadamer, the man who likes to underline that " language speaks " , took the view that we ourselves do not so much make conversation as we are drawn into and become wrapped up in it .

Beyond our own intentions, language and context determine what becomes of our words. For a humanitarian organization like the ICRC — which is almost always involved in contexts ranging from the emotional to the irrational — this also seems to me to be an important lesson. We not only need to be clear about what we want to say or not say but we also need to consider carefully when and where we should get involved in public debate.

Nothing better illuminates the relationship of the ICRC to public statements and to public denunciations of breaches of international humanitarian law than the fact that, as a rule, the organization resorts to such means only when its confidential approaches remain fruitless and it comes to the conclusion that it can make no further meaningful contribution to the protection and support of the victims of the conflict. Public denunciation is a second or third best alternative . To put it another way: as a rule, this step will be taken only when the ICRC comes to the conclusion that a public denunciation or public appeal will do more for the victims of conflict than its activity in the field. In assessing the implications of this statement, it is also necessary to bear in mind that the ICRC has had no overwhelming evidence to convince it of the mobilizing effect of public appeals, although admittedly there can be no detailed verification.

It would be hard to conceive of a more dramatic and urgent public appeal to the international community than that of 28 April 1994, some three weeks after the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda which was to continue for another three months. The ICRC called on the governments concerned to take all possible measures to put an immediate end to the massacres. In order to save its own delegates from almost certain death, the ICRC did not characterize the events as " genocide " . However, the circumlocutions employed — " systematic carnage " , " the extermination of a significant portion of the civilian population " — left no room for doubt about what was going on. And for anyone who might still be plagued by doubts, the situation was clarified in numerous press releases issued during April using such terms as " chaos " , " carnage " , " massacre " , " human tragedy " , etc. However, for all their clarity, these public statements did not elicit the rapid reaction that was desired. It was not until 22 June that the UN Security Council gave France the green light to carry out a humanitarian operation during the two-month period until implementation of the resolution of 17 May raising the number of staff of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to 5,500.

The point of this example is not to denounce the slow response of the international community but to point out, to those who advocate a quick public indictment, that people may well be content with just that. I say this in full knowledge of the enormous importance currently placed on so-called " setting signals " " . The problem is simply that, as a rule, this results in nothing more than calling on someone else to do something. The victims, however, need concrete help and concrete protection. In making this point, I do not underestimate the importance of lending a voice to those who have no rights and who would not otherwise be heard.

The position of the ICRC with regard to public comment can be understood only if we realize that the aim of having access to all victims of armed conflict has greater priority than anything else except security. The ICRC is truly the example of an organization that categorically lays down a priority .

The ICRC also has the reputation of being an organization that strives to maintain a reasonable relation between the responsibility it accepts and its own capacity for action. . If I may borrow and adapt a phrase of Enzensberger's, the ICRC does not wish to swell the ranks of those who shirk their responsibilities by setting moral requirements - to itself and others - that bear no relation to any real capacity for action. In a world in which virtually every activity — including talking — must be exploitable, laying down priorities can seem strongly dogmatic, even though it may seem perfectly natural from the point of view of the victim. The ICRC does not see itself as the moral conscience of mankind and realizes that it cannot prevent armed conflicts. What it does want is to do everything in its power to help the victims of conflict and to desist from everything that could jeopardize access to them. In a way, it may be seen as standing in defence of minimum civi lized standards under difficult conditions. The merits or demerits of public comment must be measured by this setting of priorities . Two things must not be forgotten: " speaking out " or " remaining silent " are both actions highly relevant to the security of ICRC staff. Finally, there is plenty of scope for public comment that does not in any way jeopardize the conduct of humanitarian activity. I am thinking here of the many opportunities to give instruction in international humanitarian law and to make new proposals for developing this body of law. In Colombia alone, the ICRC has conducted 1,340 seminars and meetings attended by almost 60,000 participants from governmental and non-governmental organizations.

You will probably have noticed that, so far, all of my references have been to public comment. However, public comment is certainly not the only or necessarily the most effective form of comment. ICRC staff frequently do speak out very plainly. When they come across breaches of international humanitarian law, they take the matter up with the parties to the conflict — often troop commanders in very remote areas — to explain the applicable law and demand compliance. That takes guts. The personal risk is far greater than in publishing indictments far away from the conflict zone. Confidential prison reports contain ICRC recommendations on ways to improve conditions. These recommendations are discussed with the competent authorities. When the next visit takes place, staff check to see what recommendations have been implemented. I will spare you a lengthy enumeration. Reports on the conduct of war are drawn up for the attention of the parties to the conflict, assessing the extent to which the civilian population is protected in military operations. What is important to me is simply to indicate that, although the ICRC is on the whole reticent to speak out publicly , this does not mean tha t it remains silent about what it sees, or that it refrains from speaking out for the purpose of improving conditions. In the end, the organization places more trust in confidential persuasion than in the effects of public denunciations.

You will perhaps be able to see that restraining oneself from making public comment is what actually requires a great effort. The real temptation  is to go public, to denounce and to blame. Why?

  • given everything that our personnel see and experience, it often requires a great effort for them not to give free rein to their sense of outrage;

  • showing their concern would allow them to share in a widespread desire to pass judgment;

  • as the representatives of an organization that knows a lot about what others do not know — and indeed has experienced much that others do not experience — they would be able to make their knowledge known;

  • they would show themselves to be transparent — which has for many a value in itself — without needing to be concerned about the lasting and serious consequences of their exercise in transparency. As a result of their emotional description of conditions in Prison X in Country A, they will find themselves refused further access. Yet who will ask what it means for security prisoners to receive no more visits? In all probability, public opinion and those who are hungry for news will be more interested in the first half of the equation than in the second.

  • they would often like to use their knowledge of the facts on the ground to contradict the one-sided picture given of a particular conflict (frequently for transparently political motives) and one-sided condemnations.

The relationship between the ICRC and the media is much closer and more complex than you might think from what you hear. Their representatives are often active in the same environment and the ICRC has a genuine interest in the media reporting on armed conflicts and thus rescuing them from oblivion. For example, during the first month of the genocide in Rwanda, the ICRC brought a dozen journalists down to Kigali, though they left the city again after two days.

Raising the awareness of the media with regard to conditions in war zones and general humanitarian concerns, such as establishing responsibility for the removal of unexploded ordnance, is of operational significance for the ICRC. Moreover, where the States have no clearly definable or recognizable strategic interests at stake and public debate is dominated by the zero-casualty issue, it is only through the mobilization of public opinion that governments can be persuaded to act. This is where the media play a crucial role. . From the general debate on so-called “humanitarian interventions” by multinational forces you might well get the mistaken impression that the real danger comes from a reckless zeal for action on the part of the international community. However, this is not the case. Rwanda is the rule rather than the exception.

From what I have been saying, you might — despite the nuances I have introduced — get the idea that there is really no problem with the principle of restraint in making public comments and appeals. Nevertheless, there remain a few questions here that I would not wish to avoid:

  • In the end, doesn't extreme restraint in commenting publicly on serious breaches and in allocating blame tend to favour the perpetrators? Might there not also be accusations of complicity with the oppressors?

  • Isn't it possible that public comments or denunciations will trigger actions which will lead to a more durable and widespread improvement in the conditions of a suffering population than the public restraint which facilitates the provision of humanitarian aid?

  • Above all, how certain is it that a bolder and more cha llenging approach on the public stage will lead to the ICRC being kicked out of a country in which it is carrying out humanitarian activities?

Let me deal with the last question first. The answer is that it is not certain that it would be kicked out. An assessment has to be made in each individual conflict area. In any event, however, the likelihood of a serious impairment of humanitarian activity is sufficiently high that it is necessary to have a clear idea of the probable consequences before making any public comments. Yet there will always be situations in which there is no alternative but to speak out boldly. In view of the potential consequences, that is one of the hardest of all decisions to take.

A large-scale public condemnation may initially promise a development which can be seen as more advantageous in the long term than humanitarian aid in a socio-political framework offering no prospect of change. While I do not believe that humanitarian aid prolongs wars, it may indirectly delay the arrival of peace and reforms if it prevents the sort of dramatic deterioration in the situation which alone would push the international community or forces within the country itself to take drastic action. Nevertheless, I must tell you that I have serious doubts that a public condemnation would produce this result. It is much more likely that it would have little or no impact while, at the same time, many people would suddenly find themselves deprived of the help of a humanitarian organization.

With regard to the first question: it is true that the absolute priority of retaining access to the victims can indeed have the corollary that the warlords or oppressors in a country get off more lightly with international public opinion than they deserve. However, the dilemma is seen to be rather artificial once you consider how many organizations now exist that have made the public denunciation of abuses their core activity . As they are not involved in any humanitari an activity in the countries concerned, these organizations can be quite unconcerned about an expulsion. These advocacy organizations have a very important role to play. There is however no shortage of them and consequently no compelling reason for the ICRC to lay down new priorities.

Such is the nature of the activity of the ICRC that it is always in special circumstances that it needs to speaks out or remains silent. These circumstances are the emotional and irrational elements of conflict situations in which every word, depending on the party and perspective, has its own significance and resonance. For an organization like the ICRC, it is essential to be acutely sensitive to words and their resonance determined by past and present associations, which are not always easily apparent. These qualities of words come out particularly in conflict situations, a fact that we were reminded of most recently on 17 May.

I hope I have given some idea at least of how important it is to take particular care with public pronouncements in activities such as those carried out by the ICRC. However, you must not think that I believe myself to be in possession of a universally applicable recipe for when it is appropriate to speak out or to remain silent. Before any decision is taken, it is first necessary to look more deeply into the specific situation. There is certainly no reason for the ICRC to underestimate the importance of public communication. While, for the reasons I have given, the ICRC must resist the current temptation to rush to judgment and pronounce blanket condemnations, it must and will make resolute use of the public arena for describing humanitarian conditions in many parts of the world, for explaining complex and impenetrable conflict situations and for promoting humanitarian concerns. We must not hold back from doing so despite our awareness that instant judgments and condemnations are in growing demand.

The decision to speak out or to remain silent is a difficult one in an organization like the ICRC considering the serious consequences it can have in certain situations . . Regardless of public opinion and other opinions, the ICRC must never lose sight of its core mission. However, it does need to have a fine sense of when to raise its voice. There is nothing I would like more than to have such a sense at the crucial moment.