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Fifty years on

By François Bugnion

Europe commemorates the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in May this year. During those terrible six years of war, what was the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement able to do? What was its future the day that the arms fell silent? What challenges does it face today, 50 years on?

8 May 1945: V-E Day! Church bells across Europe joyfully proclaim the end of six years of carnage, oppression and devastation wrought by the Second World War.

Yet, for many the end of hostilities had left a bitter taste: the war was pursuing its relentless course in Asia, while back in Europe the discovery of mass graves and the full horror of the concentration camps, the magnitude of the loss and destruction, and anxiety about the future gave little cause for jubilation.

An entire generation had been decimated by the ferocity of the fighting. Air raids and massacres had claimed as many victims among civilians as fire and the sword among combatants. All over Europe, countries had been ravaged by the passage of armies; whole cities had been systematically destroyed, communications paralysed, and food stocks and harvests depleted.

The Movement had witnessed so much terrible suffering that it could not but rejoice in the end of hostilities. But it was also too aware of its limitations to be able to abandon itself to euphoria.

Throughout the war, National Societies had been in the forefront of the humanitarian effort; they performed their primary role as auxiliaries to the armed forces’ medical services, evacuated the wounded, supported hospitals away from the front and assisted the families of fallen servicemen. In many countries, they provided back-up for the social services disrupted by the war, sometimes even replacing them. They carried out huge relief operations for the stricken populations and refugees. Even in countries that had been occupied, they were able to carry out some relief work, despite the constraints imposed by the occupying authorities.

For the Federation (then the League), the Second World War was a period of reflection and self-examination. Unable to call a meeting of its statutory bodies and blocked by the German leadership from taking any independent action in countries under occupation, it was only able to come to the aid of the civilian population through the Joint Relief Commission of the International Red Cross, a body jointly created by the ICRC and the Federation.

For its part, the ICRC was the mainspring of the operation to assist prisoners of war. Delegates travelled to every corner of the globe to visit prisoners of war and check on their conditions of detention. Thanks to the commitment of 3,000 volunteers, the Central Agency for Prisoners of War kept track of millions of captives and helped them to re-establish links with their families; to come to their aid, the ICRC launched a massive relief operation, to the point of becoming the largest civil transport company operating at the time. Finally, with the help of the Swedish Government, the ICRC conducted its largest single relief operation ever, saving the people of Greece from certain famine.



The war over, the Movement also played a crucial part in reconstruction and assistance programmes for the stricken populations. The American Red Cross once again took a leading role and implemented huge relief operations for the people who had suffered so badly in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and Greece.

In every country of Europe, the National Societies were there to welcome back prisoners of war and former deportees once the war was over; they came to the assistance of displaced people and refugees, who numbered in the millions and many of whom languished in makeshift camps while waiting to be accepted by host countries.

With the return to peace, the Federation found a new sense of purpose. It was once again able to support actively National Society assistance programmes, at the same time paving the way for the Red Cross and Red Crescent to revert to post-war tasks.

The ICRC, despite the huge operations it had conducted throughout the war, despite the Nobel Peace Prize which was bestowed on it for the second time in December 1944, found itself in the position of the accused once the war was over. It was held responsible for the tragic fate of the Soviet prisoners of war, over half of whom died in captivity, and it was blamed for not having publicly denounced the Nazi concentration camps. Furthermore, in the war’s aftermath it was generally little understood why the ICRC, in accord-ance with its mandate, continued to assist German prisoners of war, who were held collectively responsible for crimes committed by the Hitler regime.

From all sides, and even within the Movement, voices called for the ICRC to be dissolved and its activities transferred to the Federation. This state of affairs caused a deep rift within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – a rift which was only overcome with the adoption of the new Geneva Conventions in 1949 and that of the new Statutes of the International Red Cross in 1952.

An uncertain peace

8 May 1995: Europe celebrates the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, 50 years dominated by the divisions of the cold war and by the dismantling of the colonial empires.

The cold war itself came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Sadly, far from bringing with it the widespread peace that all had hoped for, it has led to a period of renewed turbulence that has not yet emerged into a new world order.

If some conflicts that had their origins in the cold war have now been happily resolved, notably in Central America, Mozambique and South Africa, others have been given a new lease of life, such as in Afghanistan and Cambodia. In the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, animosities long suppressed under the cold war have come to the surface unleashing untold violence. In other cases, such as Somalia and Liberia, the very structure of the State collapsed, leading to a complete breakdown of law and order and a climate of terror in which no holds were barred.

On the economic front, the five decades that followed the Second World War have been characterised by an extraordinary growth in prosperity. But this growth has been unequally distributed, provoking tensions between countries that have access to this new prosperity and those that are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation. The world epidemic of AIDS, and recurrent earthquakes and floods remind us all of the limitations of science and of man’s mastery of the world.

For all these reasons, the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s action is still as vital today as it was in the devastated world of 1945. But, as it did at the end of the Second World War and as it has at each period of crisis in its history, the Movement is once again facing a threat to its unity.

In order to accomplish its mission, in order to come to the aid of victims who so badly need its assistance, and in order to rise to the challenges that now confront it, the Movement needs to rediscover its cohesion, while respecting the different but complementary mandates of each of its institutions.


François Bugnion
François Bugnion is Deputy Director
of Principles, Law and Relations with
the Movement at the ICRC.


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