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
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’
“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
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
“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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
©REUTERS / KIMIMASA MAYAMA, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
USA: a helping hand
for a GI’s
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
“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
First World War, 1914–1918. A wounded soldier is transferred
in a train of the Hungarian Red Cross.
©VIENNE KRIEGSARCHIV / ICRC
Durum, Sudan. ICRC dissemination session on the rules of war,
given to ‘Justice and Equality Movement’ combatants.
©BORIS HEGER / ICRC
Working with the
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
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.
©REUTERS / HO NEW, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
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.
©AFP PHOTO / US HQ / THOMAS J. DOSCHER