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An early test of principle (continued)


After the ultimatum in Phnom Penh, Beaumont and Bugnion returned to Geneva for consultations with the ICRC and UNICEF. “The ICRC was divided,” says Bugnion, “but finally we agreed that this was not really an issue of international humanitarian law, but a problem of the respect of the Fundamental Principles; specifically the principle of impartiality would guide us in this particular case. The principle of impartiality compelled us to continue the cross-border operations, in spite of issues of state sovereignty and of threats of expulsion from the country.”

It was a risky balance. But in the end, it came down to a simple calculation:“If the government decided to expel us, that would be their decision,” Bugnion says. “But if we decided not to assist people that we could help, then that was our decision. From that standpoint the decision was made: we took the risk.

“So I returned to Cambodia with the authorization from the ICRC leadership to pursue the operations across the Thai border and the approval for a plan of action for the most extensive rescue operation ever attempted by the ICRC. It had a budget of US$ 110 million, which represented 3.5 times the global budget of the ICRC for the previous year.”

The objective was to feed 3 million people, completely re-equip the hospitals and clinics, and import seeds and tools to restart agriculture, among other things.“The counterpart to all of that would be that we would be firm on the question of respect of the principle of impartiality.”

Upon their return to Cambodia, Beaumont and Bugnion met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Ultimately, the minister agreed with the plan of action, under the condition that discussion regarding the operations on the Thai border continue. “In short, he agreed to separate the question of trans-border operations from the rest of the operation,” Bugnion recalls.

“What is interesting to me is that confronted with this dilemma, and seeing that international humanitarian law didn’t clearly indicate the path to follow, it was truly on the basis of the Fundamental Principles that the ICRC ultimately solved the problem.

“This experience is useful relative to other situations where we are put under pressure, where we are told not to help certain people who are under the power
of a political body that has not yet been recognized,” Bugnion suggests. “For example, in cases of civil war when governments say: ‘You can only help those
who are under our control, not those who are under control of our adversaries.’ From this point of view it was an important precedent.”

Photo: ©ICRC






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