Back to Magazine

For better, for worse
How does the Movement
relate to the military?


On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Henry Dunant’s work at Solferino, members of the Movement and soldiers talk about a relationship that has been variously described as ‘fundamental’, ‘privileged’ and ‘a dilemma’.


It’s shortly after 15:00 hours — that’s 3pm in civilian parlance — at a vast, rainswept military training area at Grafenwoehr, in south-east Germany, not far from the border with the Czech Republic. A dozen army officers in camouflage uniforms sit round a table in a lecture room as a British officer prepares to speak.

Suddenly, there’s a problem: a suspect presence is spotted in the room — the reporter for this magazine — and there’s a hurried discussion with the course organizer. It’s explained that he is here only for the presentation that will be made by the ICRC and will then leave. Heads are nodded, the reporter can sit down and the proceedings start.

These are staff officers preparing for a posting to Afghanistan towards the end of 2008, where they will be members of the headquarters staff of Regional Command South, based in Kandahar, of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, Patrick Hamilton, takes the floor to brief the officers on the organization’s approach to the protection of civilians. This includes reporting complaints from civilians about alleged violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), whose rules seek to limit the effects of armed conflicts.

Complaints of this kind are taken up at regular meetings with both the military authorities and the armed opposition in Afghaniztan. The ICRC requests the authorities to carry out an investigation, communicate the results and ensure a change in the conduct behind the incident.

Aware of the military’s sensitivity to any claims of misconduct, Hamilton emphasizes that the ICRC talks about ‘allegations’, not ‘accusations’. His presentation over, the officers turn to their internal business — a briefing on ISAF’s own ‘post-incident’ procedures.

“I have the impression,” Hamilton notes after the session, “that there is a good general understanding of what the ICRC does. NATO knows we have contact with the armed opposition and the Taliban — they would like to see us pass on the same IHL message to them. We tell them that that is exactly what we do, it’s the core of our presence in conflict — being and saying the same thing to all sides.”

The ICRC has become a regular participant at these courses, informing the officers about its work and the issues they will meet to discuss in the field. It’s a level of cooperation and trust that would have been hard to imagine ten years ago.

“The ICRC is an obvious choice of lecturer,” says Major-General Agner Rokos, the Danish commander of NATO’s Joint Force Training Centre (JFTC) which runs the pre-deployment exercise. He explains that the JFTC has a comprehensive approach to training that includes representatives of organizations that they would meet on the ground. “That, of course, includes the ICRC.”

Rokos recognizes the importance of the ICRC’s independence: “We do understand the ICRC can’t be seen as being embedded with the military!”

The ICRC’s independence — a key element of its belief in neutral, independent humanitarian action — for a long time put a brake on developing closer institutional ties with military forces. This is despite the fact that operational contacts on the ground — essential for obtaining access to the wounded, prisoners and civilians trapped by conflict — have always been an everyday necessity.

“The relationship between the Red Cross and the armed forces is nothing short of fundamental,” says Michael Meyer, head of international law at the British Red Cross. This link, he says, is at the origin of the Red Cross Red Crescent and without it, members of the Movement would not be able to carry out fully their respective mandates.

Today, all the components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC, the National Societies and the International Federation) have regular and structured links with armed forces, be it in promoting international humanitarian law, responding to natural disasters or in armed conflict. The relationship is defined in official texts. Article 3 of the Movement’s statutes describes a National Society’s sphere of activities, while Article 4, which states the conditions for a society’s official recognition, explicitly calls for it to be “duly recognized” by its government as a “voluntary aid society, auxiliary to the public authorities in the humanitarian field”.

The First Geneva Convention of 1949 establishes how National Society personnel engaged in an official auxiliary capacity — and under military orders — are given the same protection as regular army medics.

In 2007, the Council of Delegates adopted a guidance document on relations with the military, aiming “to safeguard the independence, neutrality and impartiality of their humanitarian work”, essentially through respect for the Red Cross Red Crescent principles.

The changing nature of military operations since the early 1990s and the military’s own involvement in relief operations has brought both sides to realize that their relationship needs to be adapted.

Doing so has required an effort on both sides. “Generally, the military has been better at getting close to civilians over the past ten years than the other way round,” says Flemming Nielsen, head of operations coordination and focal point for civil–military relations at the International Federation.

“Some humanitarians have the feeling that the military is the problem, they are ‘the killers’,” says Nielsen, a former Danish air force officer who has broad experience in relief work, with the United Nations (UN) and the Red Cross Red Crescent (see box). “They need to understand that the military are there, they have a role. We have to learn how to work with them, and when it’s not possible, explain why.”

Over at the ICRC, David Horobin is the coordinator for rapid deployment. He sees a growing involvement by the military as inevitable. “The ‘blue water’ that traditionally existed between natural disasters and conflict-related emergencies is shrinking,” he says. “The military is now configured to respond to all types of emergencies. But they still need civilian expertise.”

Horobin, who has also worked for the International Federation and the British government, says that while military assets can be helpful, the Movement must be aware of their dual role and use them only as a last resort. “Soldiers can be dealing with humanitarian supplies one moment and bringing in troops and arms the next,” he explains. This situation is known to the military as ‘three-block operations’, in which humanitarian assistance, stabilization operations and fighting can take place almost simultaneously.

All of which is a world away from the beginnings of the Red Cross. The battle of Solferino, on 24 June 1859, was the starting point, when Geneva businessman Henry Dunant found himself helping to organize aid for wounded soldiers. The book he later wrote swiftly led to two landmark achievements: the creation of voluntary aid committees in every country, to support the army medical services in time of war; and the adoption of a treaty to ensure impartial aid for all wounded on the battlefield: the Geneva Convention. The treaty established the principle of neutrality for medical personnel, who would wear a common identifying emblem — the red cross on a white background.

In the first half century of the Red Cross, Dunant’s ideas were put into practice: the Geneva Convention was adopted by countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas and national aid committees were founded, sending medical teams and supplies to the front, even to conflicts where their own country was not involved.

This period also saw the adoption of a new emblem — the red crescent, by the Ottoman Empire — and the start of ICRC work for captured soldiers. National Societies started helping civilian victims of natural disasters.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought about the greatest humanitarian mobilization ever seen — tens of thousands of nurses, countless ambulance units and hospital trains. Many volunteers lost their lives near the front lines.

But after the war, people were seeking peace. The League of Red Cross Societies, founded in 1919, was to be the new focal point for National Societies, which would no longer need to worry about wounded soldiers because there would be no more war…

According to Jean-Christophe Sandoz, a legal adviser at the ICRC, the privileged links between Red Cross and armed forces were questioned. “In the 1920s, with the National Societies turning towards peacetime activities, their relations with the authorities changed as well, from the original position of being auxiliaries in a strictly military sense and for wartime purposes,” he says.

“There was a need to articulate the Movement’s basic principles, notably that of independence. This was to some extent at odds with the traditional auxiliary status; the Red Cross Red Crescent’s principles would be universal, as against the strictly national perspectives that had reigned up until then.”

The ICRC continued to work with governments to improve the protection of soldiers, based on its experiences in the First World War. In 1925 states signed a treaty banning the use of poisonous and bacteriological weapons and in 1929 a new Geneva Convention was added protect of prisoners of war.

International humanitarian law remained focused on the plight of military victims. It was not until 1949, after the murderous outrages of the Second World War, that civilians came under its protection.

However, the law had to be applied. It had always been an obligation for governments to instruct their soldiers in the Geneva Conventions. But this was not always a priority in the cold war.

“We were preparing for the worst, meaning the possibility of a nuclear war,” says Charles Garraway, a former senior legal adviser in the British army, now on the staff of the British Red Cross. “The feeling was that once that started, there wouldn’t be any prisoners to look after. Instruction in humanitarian law at that time was comparatively formalistic.”

His views were echoed by Captain Abdul Aziz Ahmed, director of legal services in the Royal Malaysian Navy. “Prior to 1996, if you asked officers what ‘grave breaches’ of IHL were, few would know. Some believed the Geneva Conventions were just about the medical services.”

With many countries in Asia and Africa achieving independence, sometimes accompanied by civil wars, the lack of knowledge of humanitarian law became more apparent. In 1977 the conference that adopted the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, bringing greater protection to war victims, called on the Movement to do more to help governments teach their armies the law.

The major role fell to the ICRC. Aided by a Swiss army officer it organized courses, attended by officers from around the world, and produced its first manual for armed forces.

A specialized unit (today known as FAS) was formed to help armies instruct the law of war and to develop relations with the armed and security forces around the world (see box). But this approach was unable to reach, systematically, the fighters outside traditional military structures — the guerrillas, rebels and ‘freedom fighters’ often encountered in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The problem grew in the 1990s, in the wars that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, in Africa and more recently in the Middle East. A new approach had to be worked out. The ICRC was also stepping up contacts with UN and NATO forces involved in peace support operations.

Since the turn of the century the work of FAS has been closely aligned with operational problems facing the ICRC, for example by helping the institution understand better the military world and mindset, building mutual confidence and a genuine dialogue where the ICRC can express its humanitarian concerns and get answers.

Following the attacks on the United States and the subsequent ‘war on terror’, the ICRC’s relationship with the military has faced another challenge.

“Today we are dealing with armed forces that have the capacity for global projection of power — notably the USA, but also UN peace operations,” explains François Sénéchaud, head of the FAS unit. “This means we are dealing with these forces wherever we meet them in the field. We have to make sure that our message is coherent, whether it’s delivered in the USA, in Iraq, in Djibouti or in the Philippines.”

Or Kabul. In fact it is in Afghanistan that relations between the ICRC and the military are entering a new phase. While the two sides enjoy a more open dialogue than at any other time, important differences of approach remain — for example, over the military’s role in providing assistance, which armed forces see as a key part of stability operations.

ICRC deputy operations director Walter Fuellemann says that using humanitarian action to further military objectives is a problem. “It’s more than ‘blurring the lines’. It can end up by confusing the population in need, and everybody else, about the very nature of humanitarian work, about whether there is actually any such thing as neutral, independent humanitarian action or whether all aid comes with strings attached.”

As governments seek to become more efficient and cost-effective by ‘bundling’ their response to both disasters and conflicts, using professional civilian partners, the Red Cross Red Crescent finds itself under a certain pressure to join in.

So where does this leave the National Societies’ status as auxiliaries to the public authorities — the traditional basis of their existence? Where are the limits? What happens if a government, sending troops to somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq, asks a National Society to carry out a role that would violate the Movement’s principles?

The implications of this — for the status of National Societies and any government funding — led to the adoption of a resolution by the Movement’s 30th International Conference, in 2007. This stated that while societies had a duty to give serious consideration to any request from the authorities, they also had a duty to turn down any which appeared to contradict the principles.

The Red Cross Red Crescent is not alone in seeing this kind of situation as a potential threat to the ‘humanitarian space’, that could affect the perception of aid workers (and therefore their security), their ability to reach the victims and indeed the notion of truly independent humanitarian action that is based on needs and not on political or military considerations.

Various sets of guidelines have been produced — by the Movement, by groupings of states and organizations (the ‘Oslo Guidelines’), by non-governmental organizations — that govern, for example, the use of military logistics assets in emergencies.

What General Dufour, a distinguished Swiss military commander and the ICRC’s first president, would have thought about these developments is open to conjecture. But the fact is that, 150 years down the line, the Movement that resulted from Herny Dunant’s call to action at Solferino is redefining its relationship with its original beneficiaries, the military — and the process is far from complete.


Japanese military emergency medical team members prepare a red cross flag at their camp as they begin work in the tsunami-hit city of Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, 19 January 2005.





USA: a helping hand
for a GI’s family crisis

An American soldier serving in Iraq — call him Joe Brown — is looking forward to the birth of his first child. But complications arise and his wife is hospitalized; she needs her husband at her side. On the basis of verification obtained by the local Red Cross chapter, the soldier is granted emergency leave to return home and be present at the birth.

“This is our oldest service, running ever since the Spanish-American war in 1898,” explains Joe Moffatt, executive director of the American Red Cross’s Service to Armed Forces. A special charter from the US government in 1905 led to Red Cross staff being posted on American bases in every conflict involving US forces.

“We are there for the soldiers and their families,” says Moffatt. “We do nothing off base.” In the space of 12 months the unit’s 316 staff handled 650,000 emergency communication services while assisting 185,406 military families worldwide. The Red Cross is putting in place a psychological support programme to help some families of servicemen cope with the stress of separation.






First World War, 1914–1918. A wounded soldier is transferred in a train of the Hungarian Red Cross.






Durum, Sudan. ICRC dissemination session on the rules of war, given to ‘Justice and Equality Movement’ combatants.






Working with the
military in disasters

Following the South Asia earthquake in 2005, Flemming Nielsen was in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province to coordinate relief. “We were cooperating with the military every day,” he recalls. “Nothing could have been done without military support, from the Pakistan army and the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, working under the UN flag. The Red Cross Red Crescent was able to use those assets when necessary.’’

“It was unusual”, Nielsen adds. “The Pakistani military was carrying out a relief operation that had been worked out by the Red Cross Red Crescent: we were planning, they were helping.”

After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the remote Maldives archipelago with its 1,200 islands called for close cooperation with defence personnel. “There were initially more than 20,000 displaced persons on various islands and it was our responsibility to help provide relief items,” says Jerry Talbot of the International Federation.

This included bringing 20,000 metal roofing sheets from India. But with no Red Crescent Society and few local resources, the International Federation operation was totally dependent on the Ministry of Defence for delivery and distribution.

“We paid for the charter of a barge that the Ministry of Defence used, they handled the delivery. We provided three warehouse tents to them. It was a major logistical challenge and we could not have done it alone,” recalls Talbot.





Palestine Red Crescent workers remove a body from the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank as Israeli soldiers look on, 15 April 2002.






Relations with soldiers —
a worldwide approach

Since the early 1980s, the ICRC has built up a structured network of relations with armed forces around the world (more than 160 in 2008). The aim is to help the military incorporate international humanitarian law (IHL)or the Law of Armed Conflict into their training courses and operational procedures.

Almost 30 specialist delegates are in the field, based in strategic cities: Nairobi, Pretoria, Abidjan, Cairo, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Tashkent, Lima, Moscow, Kiev, Skopje, Budapest, Brussels, London and Washington. (A smaller number of delegates are assigned to similar tasks with police forces.)

Their aim is now not only to promote IHL training but to build up a relationship that supports the ICRC’s operational needs, above all making sure that key armies are aware of the ICRC’s role in conflict and the sort of practical cooperation they can expect.

Outside formal military structures, and in order to reach all victims, ICRC delegates have always sought to develop contacts with other kinds of fighters (rebels and guerrillas, for example) with mixed success. A special adviser at headquarters is working to put in place a framework for these complex efforts and to ensure that lessons learned are not lost.





US soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force distribute school stationery to Afghan children in Orgun, in eastern Afghanistan, 16 March 2007.


Nic Sommer
Nic Sommer is a freelance journalist and editor based in Geneva.



Contact Us