The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross (review)
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Human Rights Quarterly 30.1 (2008) 211-215

Reviewed by
Thomas W. Smith
University of South Florida, St. Petersburg
David P. Forsythe, The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross (New York: Cambridge University Press 2005); ISBN 052184828 (cloth: alk. paper) ISBN 0521612810 (pb.), 356 pp.

These are challenging times for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Founded in 1863 to aid soldiers wounded or captured on the battlefield, the venerable Swiss institution is today the largest private relief organization in the world. Yet while activist humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International or SaveDarfur.org mount media campaigns to denounce atrocities or to advocate intervention, the ICRC rarely strays from its trademark neutrality and discretion. Reliant on government donors and dependent upon access to detainees and victims that can be withdrawn by states or belligerents, the ICRC is reluctant to confront abusers openly. Its stock-in-trade is discreet cooperation with public authorities—including those actively engaged in war crimes and human rights abuses. When the ICRC does go public with its concerns it does so in a style designed to minimize the public shaming of the offender.

As David Forsythe argues in this important and nuanced book, the ICRC's institutional caution and almost innate deference to state authority does not render the group simply stodgy or ineffective. Forsythe's authoritative informed outsider account can be unflinchingly critical of an organization that at times [End Page 211] places its own interests ahead of the needs of victims, but the ICRC's unique strengths, particularly its unparalleled access to detainees, make this a story of moral reasoning rather than the straightforward application of international law or of black-and-white humanitarian activism. Activists who consider neutrality a form of moral bankruptcy will decry the organization's studious avoidance of "politicized humanitarianism," or muscular public efforts to compel belligerents to act humanely.1 Legal experts will similarly be unnerved by the remarkably pragmatic view of law observed by the so-called guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL). Theorists of international relations may feel at sea with the ethical complexities attached to the work of this norms entrepreneur par excellence. At core, the book is about the limits of law and the precariousness of humanitarian norms as well as the possibilities of pragmatic, mostly after-the-fact, humanitarian aid.

Still, the ICRC often agonizes over the compromises it makes. Forsythe describes an organization haunted by its irresponsibility during the Holocaust. The ICRC never achieved meaningful access to the Nazi camps. But it also remained silent during the extermination of the Jews, apparently not wanting to jeopardize its access to Allied prisoners of war by publicly condemning the genocide. The ICRC's reticence reflected official Swiss neutrality. During the war the organization was co-opted by the Swiss Foreign Office, which oversaw the group's activities. Forsythe finds no evidence of institutional anti-Semitism, but the ICRC's acquiescence in this arrangement did allow the national interests of Switzerland "to trump the independent humanitarian judgment of the organization," particularly with regard to Jewish victims of the war.2 The Swiss government wielded even heavier-handed control over the Swiss National Society for the Red Cross, actively blocking its efforts to resettle Jewish children in Switzerland.

The ICRC's efforts to implement the lessons of World War II have been hampered both by the bureaucratic culture of the organization and by the inherent moral hazards of humanitarian relief work. Institutionally, the ICRC is an oddity. Governed by an assembly of not more than twenty-five Swiss citizens, the ICRC is a private agency that acts like an intergovernmental organization. Though its "Swiss" view of the world tends to mirror that of the government in Berne, the Red Cross is hardly Swiss in efficiency. Forsythe describes the movement as a "disjointed and uncoordinated network of actors . . . [which] was, and often still is, a dysfunctional family."3 It has accomplished much in spite of bureaucratic wrangling among the ICRC, the Federation of Red Cross Societies...


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