150 years International Committee of the Red Cross: interview with Manuel Bessler

Article, 13.02.2013

«Today’s conflicts differ dramatically from what Dunant witnessed»

To protect the lives and dignity of the victims of armed conflict: Even today, 150 years after it was founded, this still remains the mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Switzerland is not only the country where the ICRC has its headquarters; it is also its second-largest donor. The ICRC is the most important international partner of Swiss humanitarian aid. How do these humanitarian agencies work together? To mark the occasion of the ICRC’s 150th jubilee, this question and others are answered here by the Swiss Delegate for humanitarian aid.

On 17 February 1863, Henri Dunant founded the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded”. The horror that Dunant had seen four years earlier at the battle of Solferino, his commitment to assisting the wounded and dying, and the help provided by women and girls from the nearby Castiglione – these impressions continued to move him even in the years after the battle.
He wrote a book about his experiences at Solferino, published it at his own expense and sent it to politicians and military leaders. Dunant wanted to make sure that care and protection would be provided for war victims. His commitment led to the founding of the Committee and, a year later, to the adoption of the Geneva Conventions.

The mission of the organisation known today as the International Committee of the Red Cross has remained the same. It is impartial, neutral and independent; it protects the life and dignity of victims of wars and armed conflicts; and it endeavours to alleviate suffering by promoting and strengthening international humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles.

«When the sun came up on the twenty-fifth of June, it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches to Solferino were literally thick with dead. The fields were devastated, wheat and corn lying flat on the ground, fences broken, orchards ruined; here and there were pools of blood.»

Manuel Bessler, this was how Dunant described what he saw after the battle of Solferino. Today, we are familiar with similar images from the media reporting from around the world on the consequences of wars and armed conflicts. The need for the protection and nursing of victims seems in no way to have diminished even 150 years after Solferino. What has changed since the ICRC was set up?
Today’s conflicts differ dramatically from what Dunant witnessed during the Battle of Solferino. In the past, war meant the armed confrontation of two or more countries with well-organised armies. The battlefields were clearly identifiable; it was easy to distinguish between soldiers and civilians.
Today, conflicts and their humanitarian consequences are far more complex. Violence is more often a result of large-scale violations of human rights than of the military confrontation between two states. Warfare is conducted not only by the military, but also by paramilitary and terrorist groups – who cause a great deal of suffering, due to their lack of respect of international humanitarian law.
«Warfare» today also no longer necessarily involves the use of military means. Political sanctions, economic embargoes and psychological harassment severely affect civilians. And technology too has changed since Solferino. The use of mines or chemical weapons has a severe impact on populations, lasting beyond the duration of a conflict or war.

Has the perception of the ICRC and the humanitarian principles changed in the course of the years?
Since the ICRC was launched, respect for the ICRC emblem and humanitarian principles has changed significantly. In the past, principles of neutrality and independence were acknowledged by all parties involved in a conflict. Humanitarian actors could provide their assistance to those who most needed it. With the increasing radicalisation of conflicts, humanitarian workers are themselves becoming targets. The growing number of casualties and deaths among humanitarian workers during the past decade illustrates this phenomenon. It represents a serious threat to the work of the ICRC and other humanitarian agencies. In recent years, access to victims has also become a challenge, as witnessed in Syria or Mali.

Switzerland is the ICRC’s second largest donor, after the USA. In 2013, Switzerland’s contribution amounts to CHF 114.5m. What is the money used for?
Each year, CHF 70m goes to the running of ICRC operations at its headquarters in Geneva – no other donor provides as much financial support for this purpose as does Switzerland. Approved by the Swiss Parliament, this financial contribution is neither bound nor restricted to conditions. It allows the ICRC to run its activities and programmes while maintaining its independence.
This year, the SDC increased its contribution to the ICRC operations from CHF 40m to 44.5m. How this money is allocated is part of a constructive dialogue with the ICRC. From our point view, it is important that the money is also channelled to regions that do not receive enough international attention and where victims are left unassisted. One example is the Central African Republic, which was the theatre of renewed internal violence in December and January.
In our discussions with the ICRC about the allocation of the SDC’s operational funds, we also emphasise the regional effects of a conflict and the importance of including the neighbouring countries. The SDC’s presence in the field makes a noticeable difference in these discussions, which are generally fruitful and constructive.

The ICRC has been called «the most important partner of the Swiss Confederation in the field of international humanitarian aid». What does that mean substantively?
One third of Switzerland’s humanitarian-aid budget goes to the ICRC. This figure alone illustrates the importance it attaches to the ICRC. More specifically, this partnership enables us to see humanitarian programmes through to convincing results. In Lebanon we worked on a project with the ICRC and the Lebanese Red Cross. The latter had received a remit from the Lebanese government to provide first aid to the population. Some 2600 volunteers had put their names down to perform this task in emergency situations, for providing home care and for administering first aid in outpatient centres. It was necessary to pursue two objectives in training them: standardisation of care throughout the country and adapting it to international standards.

How does training these volunteers take place in practice?
To begin with, a group of healthcare professionals (doctors, paramedics, nurses and training specialists) belonging to the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit provided training for the trainers in Lebanon, who, in turn, trained Lebanese trainers – they finally passed their knowhow on to the volunteers. After that, the plan for training these volunteers was reviewed in its entirety and adapted to international standards, paying particular attention to local specificities.
This is an example of tripartite cooperation between the ICRC, which provided technical and financial support for the training, the SDC, which made available its experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, and the Lebanese Red Cross, which coordinated all the training activities in all four corners of the country. Today, these first-aid workers are in the front line of looking after Syrian refugees coming into Lebanon. This demonstrates the relevance and sustainability of the actions we perform as part of this partnership.

Would you be able to give us a current example of cooperation between the ICRC and Swiss humanitarian aid?
We are currently working on a possible partnership with the ICRC regarding its humanitarian response in the event of a nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical, or NRBC, disaster. As I mentioned earlier, the context in which humanitarian agencies intervene is becoming more and more difficult in every respect. The weaponry with NRBC components that might be used in some conflicts represents one aspect of this changing context. The provision of aid to victims after such an attack calls for appropriate tools and resources, including the mobilisation of qualified staff and equipment. The ICRC requested Swiss humanitarian aid and other partners specialised in this area to provide experts and material. This support will strengthen the ICRC's ability to react when an NRBC disaster occurs during an armed conflict or another situation of violence.

What significance does it have for Swiss humanitarian aid that the ICRC has its headquarters in Geneva? Does the fact that the ICRC is based in Switzerland result in any special form of cooperation with Swiss humanitarian aid?
Both underscore Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition. Switzerland’s particular status as depository state of the Geneva Conventions, the presence of the ICRC’s and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ headquarters in Geneva reinforce Geneva’s status as the cradle of humanitarianism.

The job of the ICRC is to protect the life and dignity of the victims of conflicts and to provide them with assistance. Swiss humanitarian aid supports the ICRC in many ways, including in this job. There are, however, many countries in which access to the victims is difficult – if not impossible – even for the ICRC. What possibilities are then still left for humanitarian workers to protect the victims and to get help through to them?
The question of access is closely tied to the respect of international humanitarian law. Switzerland, in its role as a neutral state and the depository state of the Conventions, can lay claim to having a certain responsibility to remind the states, and indeed anyone carrying arms, of their duty to respect this law, since it makes provision for access to the victims of armed conflicts, protection of the medical mission and respect of humanitarian actors.
Access to the victims also depends on the financial resources available to the humanitarian organisations for carrying out their operations. If we take the Syrian crisis as an example of a conflict extending over time, then the distribution of aid to the refugees and the other persons affected represents a major cost factor – it would be wrong to try to play this down. Switzerland provides consistent financial support to ensure that the humanitarian organisations are able to do their job and to get the aid needed through to the victims. Most recently, at the conference of donor countries held in Kuwait, it released an additional CHF 10m for the Syrian crisis, thereby topping up its total contribution since the outbreak of the crisis to CHF 30m.

Many of the people now working for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and members of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit are former ICRC delegates. What advantages does the ICRC experience bring for work in the SDC and the SHA?
The ICRC is the only organisation with an international mandate based on the Geneva Conventions. It is the place to learn the humanitarian profession inside out, from the most basic activities through to the most sensitive ones, such as protecting civilians in armed conflicts.

As a private organisation under Swiss law but holding an international mandate and enjoying global recognition, the ICRC bases its work on the fundamental principles of humanitarian aid: independence, impartiality and neutrality. These principles are constantly reiterated and emphasised. Over and above the technical aspects, it is an excellent school for learning the moral bases of the profession.

The presence of numerous former ICRC employees within Swiss humanitarian aid allows us to reinforce these principles and this knowledge within our own institution, which shares and stands up for the same values. In carrying out our activities, we can rely on highly qualified personnel totally familiar with humanitarian principles.

Additional Information and Documents

  • ICRC
    The International Committee of the Red Cross
  • ICRC - Red Cross
    Protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict, provide them with assistance and prevent...