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Eye on the principles

by Yves Sandoz
Yves Sandoz, ICRC Committee member, focuses on the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the current world crisis to combat terrorism. To tackle the root causes of this phenomenon, Sandoz promotes the Movement's Fundamental Principles as a way of fostering solidarity in an increasingly polarized world. For who is better placed than the Movement, open to all races and all religions, to combat racial and religious prejudice - against the "demonization" of the other - through dialogue between members of National Societies from all over the globe?

Unloading food supplies for people caught on the front line of the conflict in Colombia.

You cannot mention terrorism today without referring to the attacks against the United States. The date - 11 September 2001 - will go down as one of history's darkest days. The response was incisive: war against Afghanistan. The Afghan government, implicated in the attacks, was overthrown following swift military action that mobilized massive resources and also cost many lives.

Yet terrorism is not a new phenomenon and divergent views exist on what it actually is. Some say that the emphasis should be on the desire of certain groups to destabilize institutions by the use of arbitrary violence; others say you cannot condemn without qualification a violence often used to oppose evil regimes. To put it simply, one person's terrorist may be another's freedom fighter. The differing views on what is known as "state terrorism" is adding to the confusion, and one of the main obstacles to the adoption of a universally accepted definition.

The arguments over semantics, however, should not impede the fight against those acts that are undeniably of terrorist intent, i.e., violence deliberately aimed at civilians or arbitrary violence, acts that are prohibited by international humanitarian law even in times of war, whatever the cause defended.

The battle against terrorism

Terrorism is an insidious threat, against which there is no sure refuge. How do you keep a whole population safe from people who are ready to strike at any moment, in any place and by any means? Although the goal of dismantling the terrorist networks is perfectly legitimate, it is not in itself sufficient to eradicate terrorism. That would be to strike at the tip of the iceberg in an attempt to destroy the whole iceberg. As the laws of physics demonstrate, the iceberg will soon reappear if we do not also tackle what lies below the surface.

In fact, if this war focuses solely on destroying the visible "tip" of terrorism, it could actually favour the growth of the submerged part. This could happen in four ways: firstly, it would reinforce the prejudice and distrust between different groups, cultures or countries. Prejudice and distrust breed hatred; hatred breeds violence. Secondly, it is likely that a good part of the enormous cost of defence measures will be at the expense of aid and development budgets, increasing poverty and enlarging the pool of potential terrorists. Thirdly, favouring cooperation with unjust, corrupt and undemocratic governments in order to obtain their assistance in tracking down terrorists in the four corners of the globe will erode even further the confidence of thousands of young people not only in their own authorities, but also in international institutions and justice. Lastly, the core values of humanitarian law risk being undermined on the pretext of combating terrorism more effectively.

You cannot effectively defeat terrorism without dealing with its root causes. Given the diversity of situations in which it manifests itself, a precise analysis of the evils that lead to terrorism is a long-term undertaking. Yet, it seems immediately obvious that the millions of young people who live in poverty, with no real prospect of improving their lot and with no confidence in their authorities, provide a huge reservoir of potential recruits from which the proponents of fanatical doctrines - be they ideological, religious or political - can draw.

The fight against terrorism, if it is to have a long-term impact, must be conducted with a view on all of the world's problems. Solidarity isn't a one-way street. Many rich countries are making this fight and their own security an absolute priority. But they will not have full and universal support without also tackling the profound problems that put humanity at risk - hunger, poverty, AIDS, conflict, environmental degradation, natural disasters, refugees, crumbling public services, corruption and widespread crime.


Brcko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 1999. Promotion of international law to American peacekeepers.

Watching the laws

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. He offers some brief reflections on the war on terror and the role and significance of international humanitarian law in this conflict.

Terrorism is difficult to define. Do you have a definition?
Terrorism is the triumph of a logic that the ends justify the means. It is an offence to the standards of human rights and humanitarian law. There is no more fundamental breach than to try deliberately to kill civilians. It is important to stress that terrorism is something that can be committed not only by armed groups but also by governments.

At the same time, it is essential to remind governments that, as they legitimately try to combat terrorism, they must do so in a way that not only respects human rights but reaffirms the values of human rights because in the long run that would be the best antidote to terrorism.

In which contexts should this reminder apply?
Respecting humanitarian law in places like Afghanistan when war is conducted or respecting the Geneva Conventions when it comes to detainees in Guantanamo or not joining forces with governments that use torture or arbitrary detention as their way of addressing challenges to their authority.

Where does Human Rights Watch work?
We have a staff of 185 that works in 70 countries where there is severe repression or abusive wars. We also do extensive work in the developed world because we believe it's important as a matter of principle to hold all governments to human rights standards.



Terrorism and the Movement

The Movement is directly affected by terrorism. Delegates and other staff have been deliberately killed, wounded, threatened or taken hostage. These acts have paralysed protection and assistance programmes, vital though they are to the populations concerned. Since its very action depends on trust, the Movement rejects the terrorism that makes it a target and thus seeks to drive away a humanitarian actor or a witness who could foil its deadly intentions. Yet the role of the Movement in the fight against terrorism still needs to be defined. What should it say and do? On what should it focus its reflection? What example can it give?

Born of war, the Movement is a pioneer in the arena of international humanitarian law, of which the ICRC is the "guardian". As the journalist Michael Ignatieff wrote in this magazine in 1999, "Indeed the history of the Geneva Conventions in the 20th century is the story of a battle between the determination of Red Cross and Red Crescent workers and the ingenuity of barbarians."

However, Ignatieff points out that barbarism is inventive and humanitarian law must be constantly reinterpreted and clarified. This is particularly relevant to such fundamental issues as the definition of military objectives or the use of nuclear weapons. It is uncertainties like these that, in real-life situations, can literally terrorize a population. We must not forget that the use of nuclear weapons was recently mooted in the conflict over Kashmir.

Today some people believe the Geneva Conventions should be rewritten to include the war on terrorism. Caution is called for here until states find a universally accepted definition and understanding of terrorism and agree to rewrite the Conventions. To move too quickly would mean calling into question the principle of the equality of combatants under humanitarian law and taking a step backwards to when the old theory of a "just war" held sway. Fighting for freedom, rights or democracy does not justify killing civilians, rape or pillage. The defenders of the international order, and in particular United Nations (UN) forces, owe it to themselves to be exemplary. As for the authors of terrorist acts committed in armed conflicts, there is no doubt that they are guilty of war crimes and must be punished according to existing law. The recently established International Criminal Court ICC illustrates the will of the international community to bring such criminals to justice and raises the hope that henceforth they will escape justice less easily.

Moreover, the concept of a war on terrorism, which is little more than a "just war" under another guise, would play into the hands of the terrorists, who in turn could find arguments to justify their violent acts in the name of a "holy war".

On another front, the concept of a "preventive war", which could increase global insecurity by reducing the UN's role in regulating the use of force and prompt changes in its charter, must also be reviewed and decided by the UN.

The principles under fire

In February, far from the war on terrorism, the president of the Nigerian Red Cross, Emmanuel Ijewere, went into the streets of Lagos together with 50 volunteers during violent clashes between the Hausa and Yoruba communities. He and his colleagues, using the principles as their protection, helped stop the violence, and put the National Society at the forefront of conflict resolution. They also entered the Movement archive as another illustration of the potential of the principles to heal divided communities, states or cultures.

Wearing a Red Cross uniform and with a megaphone in hand, Emmanuel Ijewere approached the rioting crowd, appealing to them to stop the killings. Asked why he had taken such a big risk, Ijewere replies: "Even though I didn't know what I was going to meet, I felt we had to act fast because the killings had started spreading to other areas. Things would have got worse and the whole city of Lagos would have been on fire."

He felt, nevertheless, he had an element of protection. "One thing that gave me the courage to go between the rioting ethnic groups was the Red Cross uniform I was wearing. I knew people would at least listen to me before doing any other thing," he says.

Rival ethnic groups not only listened to Emmanuel Ijewere, they allowed Red Cross volunteers from different ethnic backgrounds to provide first aid and evacuate the injured. And the message from that evening has had some results. Now, after the violence has ended, people are living together.

"Apart from damaged buildings, which are a sad reminder of the unfortunate event, one wouldn't know that such a terrible thing took place in Lagos," says Abiodun Orebiyi, secretary general of the Nigerian Red Cross. "We made people understand that they have to learn to live together. They were surprised to see our volunteers from different ethnic groups - including the two rioting tribes - giving first aid to the wounded without any discrimination. This was a big lesson for them," he adds.

Recognition of the efforts made that night in February came in other ways, too. The Lagos state governor commended the peace-making efforts of the Nigerian Red Cross in a television broadcast.

"Nigerians no longer see the Red Cross as an organization that only gives first aid to disaster victims. They now know that we are involved in various programmes. Many communities now look to us to mediate in all kinds of misunderstandings and conflicts because of our neutrality," adds Emmanuel Ijewere.

International law as the best weapon

In every respect, a clear, unequivocal and respected body of international law is today an essential weapon in the battle against the sense of injustice felt by those who, deprived of even the most basic necessities, have lost confidence in their institutions. One of the law's principal functions is to protect the weak. In this respect, the Movement's efforts to clarify and ensure respect for humanitarian law contributes to building a more just international community and, consequently, one that is less susceptible to terrorism.

The actions of the Movement give full weight to its words. In speaking of terrorism, we think first of its victims, for whom the Movement has sprung into action on innumerable occasions, as seen recently after the attacks of 11 September in the United States or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, terrorism directly affects only a small number of individuals and so activities on their behalf, as necessary and justified as they are, are still peripheral.

You do not need to be a victim of the war on terror to be terrorized, as the millions of people who are starved, raped, harassed or sexually exploited in many regions can attest. The Movement has a responsibility to speak out on behalf of these vulnerable groups, especially children who live by their wits in shanty towns or on the street, who are forced to work, sexually exploited or recruited as docile but reckless combatants. Our mission is foremost a duty to these people, but it is not without its links to the fight against terrorism, for the victims of today will be more receptive to those who would lure them into crime or fanaticism - indeed anything that will enable them to escape their lot.

Under the aegis of the Federation, the Movement must also reflect continuously on new ways to intensify its programmes of internal solidarity towards the National Societies in poor countries, to strengthen operations and to encourage states to follow in its wake.

One aspect of the Movement's work which may appear paradoxical in the fight against terrorism is visits to detained suspected terrorists. The attention paid to individuals who are suspected of having committed the most heinous of crimes is often misunderstood and deserves explanation. First, it stems from the ICRC's concern to avoid any distinction being made among the categories of detainees it visits. Whenever governments are confronted by situations of armed conflict or internal troubles, they have a tendency to "pin a terrorist label" on all opposition, in the words of ICRC lawyer John Murphy. The ICRC's action in the prisons would be of little value if the organization were only to visit those detainees considered "worthy" in the eyes of those who detain them. There is another good reason for these visits.

Terrorism does not respect the universally recognized fundamental values of which humane treatment and judicial guarantees are a part. The ICRC's visits are a guarantee of respect for these values by those who, if they chose to dispense with them, would actually be playing the terrorists' game by helping to weaken their values. Lastly, these visits have a moderating influence on the escalation of hatred and violence: real or alleged torture of presumed terrorists has always deepened the divide between adversaries.

Spotlight on IHL and protection

Today almost all states - 189 out of 193 - are bound by the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which, in times of armed conflict, protect wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of the armed forces, prisoners of war and civilians.

Two Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1977. Protocol I protects the victims of international armed conflicts, while Protocol II protects the victims of non-international armed conflicts. More than three-quarters of all states are now bound by the Protocols, 159 being party to Additional Protocol I and 152 to Additional Protocol.

A summary of ICRC protection efforts in 2001

Detainees visited worldwide



Prisoners of war visited



Red Cross messages collected



Red Cross messages distributed



People reunited with their families



Tracing requests still being handled
at 31 December



Cases of unaccompanied or separated
children still being handled at 31 December



Cases of missing people still being handled at
31 December




Fundamental Principles

The Movement can inspire the international community on the shape the world should take. International law is built on the basis of the "principle of indifference" of states towards their neighbours. Now states are realizing their ever-growing interdependence. The fight against terrorism has brought this to the fore, but interdependence touches many other areas: refugees who flee poverty or war destabilize neighbouring states, and frontiers are no barrier to the massive pollution of the air and water. Indifference must therefore give way to solidarity, a concept rooted in the Movement since its inception through its Fundamental Principles of humanity and impartiality.

The requirement for an action to be free from self-interest, embodied in the principle of voluntary action, implies integrity, and there, too, the Movement can show the way. The corruption that is rife across the globe is today undermining the confidence of vast segments of the population in their leaders and in the judicial system, stoking the frustrations that fuel terrorism.

It is solidarity, a sense of belonging to a global community and integrity in all things that are at the heart of the message the Movement can send to the international community through its Fundamental Principles. These principles and values are essential to reinforcing the international community's cohesion, a vital component in its fight against terrorism and beyond. This message will be all the more powerful if the Movement can itself get even closer to the ideal embodied in its principles, for it is by action and by example that the message will be most persuasive. More than ever, it is the Movement's duty to do everything possible to surpass itself, while remaining true to itself - for its structure and principles, thanks to the clear-sightedness of its visionaries, are well suited to meet the demands of the world in the 21st century. The Movement must seize the opportunity in 2003 on the occasion of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to engage states in a dialogue on these burning issues.

Yves Sandoz
Yves Sandoz is a member of the ICRC Committee.

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