Nobel Lecture*, December 11, 1963
Some Aspects of the Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross
The International Committee of the Red Cross, being an institution unique of its kind, I feel I should say a few words about what it is and what its activities are. It is a private, independent body, composed only of Swiss citizens.
At the present time there are eighteen members who were recruited by co-optation, that is to say invited by the Committee itself, to become members. The International Committee is, therefore, completely national by composition, but international in its mission.
This is not a contradiction.
The International Committee is admitted on the territory of belligerents for the sole reason that its members are citizens of a small country, with no political ambitions but with a tradition of complete neutrality. Governments can, therefore, have full confidence in its impartiality.
The International Committee has no material power. It has no arms and would not even know how to resort to diplomatic maneuver. But its apparent weakness is offset by its moral authority. For just one hundred years now, governments have considered the existence of the International Committee useful.
They expect it to carry out tasks which cannot be accomplished by anyone else.
They know that, in a world where selfish or ideological interests are in conflict, one institution alone stands apart from struggles of this nature, even in the climax of war, and that it will always act, without any thought of self-interest, in complete independence and in obedience to its belief that suffering, being a cruel reality, must be alleviated without prejudice of any kind.
The practical activities of the International Committee are threefold: protection of war victims, information on missing persons, relief in countries afflicted by war.
To discharge its first function of giving protection, the International Committee sends out delegates, who are all Swiss also, to the countries at war, particularly in order to visit prisoner-of-war camps and ensure humane treatment to those who are held captive. These delegates watch over the situation in the detention quarters, diet, medical care, working and living conditions.
They interview prisoners without witness. Detailed reports are then sent to the detaining power and to the government of the prisoner’s country of origin. The delegates submit on the spot requests for any necessary improvements. If need be, the International Committee itself takes the matter up with the higher authorities, using the principle of reciprocity as a lever to achieve its aim.
During the Second World War the International Committee’s delegates carried out some eleven thousand camp visits.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 added strength to the International Committee in its role as the protector of prisoners of war.
These Conventions1 extended its field of activity to all civilians who might be interned, in time of war, for any reason whatsoever, and the camps – I mean the concentration camps – where they are interned are now also open to inspection.
To carry out its second function of supplying information on missing persons, the International Committee has been entrusted with setting up and running the Central Tracing Agency for prisoners of war and civilians.
This Agency communicates to anxious families news of their kin, held captive or who are missing. During the last World War, the Agency assembled some forty million information cards.
It brought news to as many as six thousand families a day.
The Agency is now a permanent establishment.
Furthermore, the Committee manages the International Tracing Service at Arolsen, in the Federal Republic of Germany, whose duty it is to supply information on persons missing from concentration camps and, also, to issue certificates of incarceration to those who survived. A staff of over two hundred and fifty persons is necessary for this colossal task.
The third aspect of the Committee’s work is to supply material relief.
During the Second World War it distributed, to the camps in which Allied soldiers were detained in Germany, for instance, relief in the form of food, clothing, medical supplies, and books, to a value of some three and a half billion Swiss francs. In order to transport this material through the blockade, the International Committee had to organize a fleet of fourteen ships which sailed the seas under the Red Cross flag.
Since the war this activity has continued. Two examples are the supplies to Hungary, at the time of the 1956 uprising2, and, at the present time, the setting up, in the heart of the Arabian desert, of a field hospital, in order to bring relief to the victims of the cruel war of which the Yemen is the theatre3.
But there are also tasks of a more general order which the International Committee has to perform.
It is the recognized guardian of the Red Cross ideal. It must, therefore, exercise vigilance to ensure respect for humanitarian principles: non discrimination, independence, and neutrality, which are the common heritage of our universal movement.
Yet a further, primary duty is to work for the development of international humanitarian law which protects the human person in the time of war. As early as 1864, the International Committee persuaded governments to conclude the first Geneva Convention4 for – as its title indicates the Amelioration of the Condition of the Sick and Wounded in the Field.
This treaty was strengthened in 1929 by a second Convention, relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. This Convention affected the lives of millions of captives during the Second World War. In order to demonstrate its usefulness, let me say that wherever it was applied the mortality rate did not exceed ten percent!
In the concentration camps for civil prisoners – where the Committee’s delegates never penetrated, despite repeated appeals to Hitler himself – the mortality rate was as high as ninety percent!
That is why it was absolutely necessary to revise and extend these Conventions. This was done in 1949 when two new Conventions were also drawn up.
The first of these brought humanitarian protection to the victims of war at sea, whilst the second – of capital importance – extended it to civilians. In fact, despite all the efforts of the International Committee, no complete, up-to-date Convention to protect civilians was in force when the Second World War broke out. Civilians were, therefore, in some countries, subject to deportation and even to extermination!
This tragic gap has now been bridged. Civilians have been given the status and the guarantees which were previously so cruelly lacking. They are now entitled to treatment of at least the same standard as that which is given to prisoners of war.
What is even more important is that this fourth Convention, as well as the three others, contains a common article, which is revolutionary in international law.
This is Article Three.
It gives certain guarantees to combatants in civil wars. It prohibits the taking of hostages and summary executions without fair trial. It lays down humane conditions of internment and the right to protection by the International Committee.
Article Three has enabled the International Committee to intervene in the civil wars which have ravaged various countries during the past fifteen years. I am thinking, more particularly, of the subcontinent of India at the time of its division into two great countries: India and Pakistan. Also in Latin America, Algeria, Vietnam, Laos, and recently again, in the Congo.
The new Geneva Conventions were soon signed and ratified by nearly every country in the world. Ninety-eight governments have ratified so far. The International Committee has drawn up detailed commentaries of these Conventions.
It has also undertaken to ensure their diffusion, for they must be known to all those who will be called upon to apply them.
Here in Oslo, two years ago, I explained how the International Committee’s mission has developed in civil wars. I shall, therefore, not dwell on this point. I would, however, like to add a further example to those I have just mentioned.
It is a venture, the scene of which is set in the burning sands of Arabia and the Yemen, where civil war is raging.
These are the only regions in the world where the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention have not yet penetrated, But they are doing so now, little by little.
This exploration in unknown territory, I assure you, is most exalting. Indeed, the heads of the two opposing forces have decided to give up their traditional practice of slaughtering the vanquished.
And now, for my example. A sheikh in the desert found himself suddenly face to face with an enemy officer. In the course of the fight both were wounded, but the sheikh, who was less seriously hurt, was able to bandage the wounds of his opponent. He leant over the man who a moment before had sought to kill him and took care of him. Then he brought him as his prisoner to his own tribe. But there, all his family and warrior friends insulted him, urging him to put the enemy to death. “If you are a man, prove it!” shouted his mother. But the sheikh was steadfast and delivered his prisoner to his king. Thus a life – and several hundred others – was saved, and the flag of the Red Cross flies over the mysterious landscapes of Arabia.
There is a point I would like to make here in connection with the intervention of the United Nations in civil wars, not only in the Yemen, but also, for instance, at the frontiers of Israel and in the Congo.
It may be presumed that they will be called upon, more and more frequently, to maintain or to reestablish peace and that the troops they send for that purpose may sometimes be in action in the trouble spots of the world.
The United Nations Organization, as such, is not, however, a party to the Geneva Conventions.
Already, in 1956 immediately after the Suez crisis5, the International Committee made known to the late – and regretted – Mr. Hammarskjöld6, its concern with this question. It repeated this in 1960, when the United Nations acted in the Congo. Each time the Committee received the assurance that the United Nations intended to observe the broad principles – that was the word used – of the Geneva Conventions. But incidents which resulted in the tragic death of three Red Cross workers, including an International Committee delegate, proves that the problem is far from being solved.
It was again raised at the Centenary Congress of the International Red Cross which was held this summer in Geneva. The Congress passed a unanimous resolution. I give you the essential passages:
(a) “The Council of Delegates – of the International Red Cross – recommends: that the United Nations be invited to adopt a solemn declaration, accepting that the Geneva Conventions equally apply to their Emergency Forces, as they apply to the forces of States parties to the said Conventions;
(b) That the Governments of countries providing contingents to the United Nations should, as a matter of prime importance, give them before departure from their country of origin, adequate instruction on the Geneva Conventions, as well as orders to comply with them…”
In this way, the International Committee hopes that this important question will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, thanks to the goodwill of all concerned.
Despite the great extension of the Geneva Conventions they still do not cover the whole field of human suffering. We have just seen that, since 1949, there exists an Article Three, common to all four Geneva Conventions, for the protection of the victims of civil wars. This article, however, is only applicable in the event of armed conflicts, but governments often deny the existence of such conflicts on their territory.
The International Committee is, therefore, trying to extend the scope of humanitarian law further still. The first objective is to bring assistance to persons interned in their own countries as a result of internal tensions.
Here the International Committee is on difficult ground.
Indeed, this raises the problem of intervention in matters affecting national sovereignty or the superior interests of the state.
Today, individuals are often treated in their own countries less favorably than enemy soldiers captured with weapons in their hands. Paradoxically, therefore, it seems that humanitarian law might, sometimes, be applied to the domestic affairs of states.
Experts of international renown, consulted by the Committee, have recognized the legitimacy of the intervention of the Red Cross in this particular field. They laid down a definition of humane treatment which should be applied to detainees in such cases. On the basis of this, the Committee has been able to act, in the course of disturbances or troubles, in several countries on the American, African, and Asian continents. Thus law and fact, theory and practice, give support the one to the other and to the work of the Red Cross.
But there is a greater problem still: the evolution of war towards an ever increasingly “total” form. It approaches this climax through the development of aviation and explosives, via systematic bombing, V-two, and napalm to the hydrogen bomb, which threatens to destroy all humanity and civilization.
The rules of air warfare, drawn up in 1907 and laid down in the Hague Conventions7, were already, at the time of the first air raid in 1911, outmoded and buried beneath the ruins of the towns laid waste.
But governments, in the face of the menacing progress of nuclear physics, are doing nothing to revise and restore these regulations.
The International Committee had, therefore, the duty to do something. It proceeded from the fact that the wholesale bombing of towns during the Second World War did not “pay” from a purely military point of view. Indeed, in the bombed industrial regions, factories never ceased work and even increased production. If governments, therefore, do not admit that total, indiscriminate war is criminal, they will, perhaps, heed the argument that it is not good tactics.
The International Committee has had an idea which may perhaps provide the key to the problem: It should not concentrate its effort against any particular weapon, such as the atom bomb, as this would go unheeded by governments and would, in any case, be insufficient. What must be done is to oppose a particular form of war.
In fact, the bombing of Hamburg resulted in as many victims as the bombing of Hiroshima.
Once a weapon is prohibited, an even more frightful one will be invented to take its place. In the French village of Oradour, where the entire population was burnt alive in the church, the weapon was a mere box of matches!
The principle to be established is, therefore, that whatever weapons are employed, the civilian population must not be harmed or at least not exposed to risks out of all proportion to the military objectives.
With the assistance of experts, the International Committee drew up draft regulations which were approved, in principle, by the last International Red Cross Conference in 1957.
This draft was then communicated to governments.
But alas, the answer was silence! The time was, perhaps, not ripe. The Red Cross, however, never lets itself be discouraged. When one door is closed, it seeks to open others.
We shall not abandon our intention of protecting the civilian population.
In autumn, 1962, the International Committee was asked to act and to step beyond the limits of its traditional mission. This was during the Cuban crisis8. You will recall that the world was then on the brink of disaster.
War was liable to break out from one minute to the next -a “press button” war, involving extermination on a massive scale, by remote-controlled thermonuclear rockets.
Faced by this ghastly prospect, the United Nations turned to the International Committee as the only organization still, perhaps, able to maintain peace.
It was asked to set up a system to control the ships bound for Cuba, to ensure, through a force of some thirty inspectors, that no long-range atomic weapons were being delivered to Cuba.
The International Committee did not see how it could refuse to undertake this task.
Indeed, when the Red Cross movement codified the “Red Cross principles” in 1961, defining , its fundamental doctrine, an additional duty was embodied, that is, to promote mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and a lasting peace amongst all peoples.
No one intended this principle to remain a dead letter.
So it came about that, in the grave tensions of the Cuban crisis, the International Committee was called upon to perform a task which it alone perhaps could undertake: to maintain peace in the world.
For at least two days there was every reason to fear the worst, that a conflict breaking out under these conditions would soon become an atomic war which would inevitably have caused the loss of millions of human lives, inflicted untold suffering and terrible destruction.
At the same time, the Red Cross itself was likely to see its work reduced to nought or rendered impossible.
The International Committee mustered all the conditions which its experience and the principle of neutrality demanded. The first step was to obtain the consent of the three parties concerned – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba – which was given.
The International Committee, thereupon, delegated one of its members to the United Nations. There he examined, with the Secretary-General, the further conditions for possible action by the Committee: among others that there be a real threat of atomic war and that the International Committee be in a position to give its assistance, in an effective manner, within the framework of the Red Cross principles.
These principles are consistent with those of international public law. One of the most important of the latter principles is the freedom of the high seas. That is why the International Committee also laid down the prior condition that the control which it was called upon to carry out be accepted by all maritime powers whose ships call at Cuba.
Had this last condition been better known by the public at large, the opposition to the International Committee’s intervention, which was raised in several countries having large merchant fleets, would certainly have been withdrawn.
Tension over Cuba subsided without the International Committee’s having to intervene in fact. But the Committee’s cooperative attitude facilitated the easing of tension.
By contributing to the maintenance of peace, it remained faithful to its mission.
Every institution, like every individual, should contribute to the crusade for peace, with the means at its disposal, The Red Cross, for its part, struggles against war by making it less inhuman; does it not rescue war victims, even on the battlefield? But, given the present state of the world, it cannot pretend to be able to eliminate the scourge of war; it therefore tries to alleviate its evils.
By promoting the first Geneva Convention, the Red Cross dealt war one of the first and most serious blows it has ever received. In August, 1864, states sacrificed a fraction of their sovereignty for the benefit of human needs. This was the price paid in order to force a breach in the ancestral hatred of man for man. War gave ground to law.
The first Geneva Convention, which was revolutionary at the time, is the basis of all humanitarian law which aims at protecting the victims of hostilities. Within a century, the mortality rate of wounded on the battlefield fell from sixty percent to two percent. These figures speak louder than words.
The impetus created by this Convention resulted in the conclusion of the Hague Conventions which govern the conduct of hostilities and restrict the use of certain weapons9.
On the moral plane also, the Red Cross promotes understanding amongst peoples by developing an active sense of brotherhood and by promoting a feeling of mutual responsibility for the good of mankind. The Red Cross knows better than anyone the wounds caused by war, for it is the Red Cross which heals those wounds; it reveals to men the hideous aspect of war and turns them from it.
The achievements of the Red Cross have a symbolic value and stand out as an example. Its accomplishments at the height of battle are acts of peace.
When war creates its tragic gap between nations, the Red Cross remains the last link. Its struggle against suffering is a vivid reproach to those who inflict it. It intervenes in the midst of violence but does not have recourse thereto. The Red Cross, therefore, makes a powerful appeal to all men in favor of peace.
* Mr. Léopold Boissier (1893-1968), Swiss jurist, professor, and diplomat, a former secretary-general of the Interparliamentary Union, a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross since 1946 and its president 1955-1964, delivered this Nobel lecture in the name of the International Committee on December II, 1963, in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. The text is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1963.
1. The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, covered the following: (1) The Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field; (2) The Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of the Armed Forces at Sea; (3) The Treatment of Prisoners of War; (4) The Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
8. The crisis, involving the U.S. and the USSR, arose over the building of Russian missile sites in Cuba in 1962; it ended when the USSR agreed to withdraw offensive weapons threatening U.S. security.
See them all presented here.