- Human Rights and the Red Cross in Historical Perspective, and Review of Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross, and The Imperiled Red Cross and the Palestine-Eretz-Yisrael Conflict 1945–1952
When it comes to advancing internationally recognized human rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has considerable experience. Whether it be through the monitoring of prisoner conditions in armed conflict and domestic unrest, or providing humanitarian assistance, or codifying international humanitarian law, the Geneva-based ICRC presents a long history, dating from 1863. In many circles of opinion the ICRC is highly regarded. Mohamed Sahnoun, for a time the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in Somalia, publicly praised the ICRC for its outstanding work providing relief in that failed state during the early 1990s. 1 When many United Nations agencies pulled out, the ICRC stayed.
Observers looking at other situations have heaped equal praise on the historically all-Swiss agency. 2 By the mid-1990s the ICRC was a favorite agency for the relative largesse of both the United States and the European Union, not to mention the Swiss government; its overall annual budget was around $550 million. This supported just under 650 persons in Geneva and just over one thousand in the field. 3
Two new books will provoke thought about the reputation of the ICRC, although John Hutchinson stops his analysis in the 1920s, and Dominique Delora Junod in 1952. Hutchinson, a Canadian historian at Simon Fraser University, engaged in prodigious research to present a revisionist history of the Red Cross (and now Red Crescent) Movement. He argues that Henry Dunant’s universal humanitarianism was nationalized and militarized by states and their Red Cross Societies, with the ICRC being variously naive, sexist, petty, and sometimes aligned with the militarized nationalists. He does give the ICRC some credit for [End Page 686] humanitarian achievements along the way. Junod, a former historical researcher at the agency, argues that the ICRC was more interested in its own political agenda than in the humanitarian problems stemming from the violence in what was once western British Palestine immediately after World War II. She notes that important officials were, at best, unsympathetic to the Israeli side in that situation. She does give the ICRC some credit for impartial humanitarianism under difficult circumstances, and believes the ICRC remains a useful agency.
Hutchinson clearly has a different view of 19th century developments than does Martha Finnemore in her National Interests in International Society. 4 Finnemore holds up the ICRC as an example of how private individuals with moral concerns can cause states to redefine their national interests so as to incorporate moral values. Hutchinson, on the other hand, shows convincingly that the states which negotiated the provision in the 1864 Geneva Convention, recognizing medical neutrality in land warfare, rejected much of what Henry Dunant and the forerunners of the ICRC lobbied for. These states, rather than being driven primarily by increased humanitarian concern and a desire to promote private medical societies on the battlefield, were still greatly attentive to realpolitik. In an age of conscript armies and more rapid communications, state representatives realized that they had to do more for wounded soldiers. The battle of Solferino, which gave rise to the idea of the Red Cross, was part of an era in which European armies had more veterinarians to care for horses than doctors to care for the wounded. 5 If states did not improve their military medical services, the very institution of war might be undermined by social unrest. Hutchinson, in delving much more deeply and critically into the history of the period than Finnemore, argues ultimately that in the origins of international humanitarian law, or what some call the law for human rights in armed conflict, “Realpolitik was every bit as important as humanitarianism. . . .” 6