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The aftermath of September 11th and current events in Afghanistan are urging us to reflect on the essence of our humanitarian mission. In 1859, at the sight of the victims of the battle of Solferino, Henry Dunant had an extraordinary intuition: war must not make us forget that human beings have the right to respect in all circumstances. Wounded combatants, prisoners and civilians must in particular benefit from the care, treatment and protection due to them as human beings. The idea was grandiose, it placed human life and dignity above all other interests, be they military, political, religious, ethnic or economic. Dunant and the Red Cross went further still by succeeding in having this moral ideal inscribed in international law: the Geneva Conventions.

This law has regularly faced its own trials. During the cold war, the Conventions were largely disregarded in the USSR, Indochina and Korea. Despite this, the ICRC did not give up: it was active in the promotion of humanitarian law, for example, in Angola. The lesson from this period is that while some may try to undermine them, the principles and rules of the Geneva Conventions cannot be cast aside. They were kept alive through constant vigilance and action in defence of human dignity.

Today, events are again challenging the relevance of the Geneva Conventions. There are numerous examples where military and political powers are tempted to put the law of the strongest before that of solidarity and justice, threatening the very foundation of humanitarian law. Once more the Movement must defend the sovereignty of humanity and dignity over all other sovereignties in order to prevent a descent into barbarism.

Paul Grossrieder
Director General of the ICRC



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