Human rights and humanitarianism: The changing ICRC

A refugee camp in Greece in 2016. Credit: verve231 / iStock

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in 1863 and is usually considered a humanitarian organization. It has historically been associated with three aims: promoting the laws of war or international humanitarian law (IHL), developing the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and directly helping those “out of the fight” but endangered by wars and “other violence.” Increasingly, the organization has become linked to human rights. The boundary between human rights and humanitarian affairs is now less distinct than in the past—if ever there had ever been a firm dividing line. 

Some claim to see the endtimes of human rights. For the ICRC, however, human rights have become more relevant to its activities over time, although it still prefers to reference IHL if it can, particularly in its fieldwork in conflicts. In IHL, human rights ideas informed the law on the books as early as the 1949 Geneva Conventions. While there remain two bodies of law—human rights and IHL—they are often combined, as in the phrase “human rights in war.”

At its core, the ICRC is a private NGO with Swiss governance, but it is treated as if it were a public international organization like a UN agency. Its governing board, including the president and vice president, must be Swiss citizens. But it has had a multinational staff since the 1990s, reaching a peak of over 20,000 recently, comprising about 130–140 nationalities. Its budget recently peaked at about 3 billion dollars each year before cuts had to be made because of insufficient income, as 85–90% of its funding comes from state donations, mainly from Western countries. 

Because the legal nature of many violent conflicts is uncertain or contested, the ICRC increasingly refers to international human rights in addition to, or instead of, IHL. The latter law is only applicable in international and internal wars (what lawyers describe as armed conflict). Short of the threshold where the laws of war apply, in “other violence,” the ICRC now regularly makes reference to human rights norms. Having held human rights law at arm’s length in the past, believing it was controversial and politicized—even utopian, the organization now has a “doctrine” or policy guidance statement on human rights. These days, the ICRC runs workshops on human rights—not just on IHL—for state officials and persons linked to armed non-state actors (e.g., terrorists or freedom fighters). 

For example, when President Bashar al-Assad said of the violence taking place in Syria from 2011 to 2022 that he did not face an internal—much less an international—war, but only violence from terrorism, the ICRC subsequently referred to human rights norms in its assistance and protection activities. When various analysts referred to the violence in Haiti circa 2022 as gang warfare, the ICRC adopted the position that the situation in Haiti did not constitute an armed conflict. And so it again referred to human rights norms. 

In these situations and many others, the ICRC prioritized humanitarian help on the ground, regardless of how legalities might have come into play—or been ignored by fighting parties. Often, in conjunction with partners inside or outside the Red Cross Movement, the ICRC has emphasized protection and assistance activities, especially for civilians in need and those detained. In Syria, it had some success in providing civilian assistance, although the Assad government required it to link with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which limited Geneva’s independence, neutrality, and impartiality. But it was able to do more than, say, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which refused to coordinate its activity with the SARC. Nevertheless, the ICRC’s efforts to stop torture in Syrian detention were unsuccessful—in comparison to assistance—due to the policies of the Assad regime. In Haiti, the ICRC often concentrated on being an intermediary during gang violence in order to improve civilian access to medical services. Whether all this ICRC activity in violent conflicts was part of human rights or humanitarian affairs might be a matter of academic distinctions without a difference. 

The ICRC has been present during all the other major violent conflicts in contemporary times, and we can take Ukraine and Gaza as important examples. The ICRC faced reputational challenges in both cases. Those attacked and seeing themselves acting in self-defense against brutal aggression did not wax lyrical about neutrality. The ICRC was denounced several times publicly by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for supposedly being lethargic in defense of Ukrainian prisoners of war and deported civilians, especially children. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel and parts of the Israeli public denounced the ICRC, especially for not doing more for the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7, 2023. Whether all this was a matter of human rights or humanitarian law was more a detail for academics and lawyers than a leading distinction for policymakers. Trying to protect and assist persons in violent conflict involves much more than deciding to reference IHL or human rights law—whether international or domestic.

Regarding Ukraine, the ICRC had reasonably good access to high policymakers on both sides and with important outsiders. It did achieve some progress on some issues related to prisoners of war, distressed civilians, tracing of missing persons, extraction of endangered civilians from violent areas, return of mortal remains of those killed, and the location of dangerous mines. However, it was clear that on detention and civilian destruction, there was considerable disregard for the limits supposedly established by IHL and/or human rights law. It can be recalled that parts of international human rights law are inviolable—or non-derogable—even in national emergencies, including war. 

The ICRC has also had reasonably good access to relevant policy makers regarding the war in Gaza, and both Hamas and Israel accepted it as a neutral intermediary for an early return of some hostages. However, Hamas was blocking its further involvement in the hostage question at the time of writing. It was also blocked by Israel from further visits to Palestinians detained in Israel, although those prison visits and links with family members had been a regular feature from 1967 to October 7, 2023. In Gaza, the ICRC kept personnel on the ground, concentrating on much-needed medical relief. On both sides, the central issue about the organization was not so much the status or effectiveness of the ICRC as it was political calculations by the fighting parties. No outsider seemed concerned with whether details constituted a matter of human rights or humanitarian affairs, although there was some attention to the IHL concepts of distinction between combatants and civilians and proportionality of response. 

Like other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC currently faces expanding human needs from proliferating violent conflicts, a shortfall of funds, restlessness among staff who face layoffs while top leaders draw handsome salaries, increased friction among Great Powers, strong nativist politics in various important states, compassion fatigue (who is paying attention to Sudan?), and many other challenges. In its response, the ICRC will assuredly make use of both IHL and human rights norms, as both are supposed to enhance human dignity. These bodies of law face many obstacles to effective application. However, matters will not be improved by abandoning these legal principles and rules, and organizations like the ICRC are trying to close the gap between the law on the books and the law in action.