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A humanitarian adventure


150 years of humanitarian action

April 1950: The ICRC issues a statement urging countries to prohibit the use of nuclear energy for purposes of warfare: “The protection of the human person against mass destruction is intimately bound up with the principle which gave rise to the Red Cross: the individual who takes no part in fighting, or who is put ‘hors de combat’, must be respected and protected.”

Photo: ©ICRC archives

1950-1953 The Korean war: The first major conflict of the cold war also heralds an era of nuclear standoff between superpowers (above).

1954 The war of Algeria: During this war of Decolonialization, the ICRC makes contact with national liberation movements while the IFRC launches two appeals, in 1956 and 1957, for 100,000 people who fled to neighbouring countries.

Jean Pictet
Photo: ©ICRC archives

1955: Jean Pictet, a key author and architect for ICRC’s work on the 1949 Geneva Conventions, defines and analyses the values and principles that define the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. His commentary still shapes how the Fundamental Principles are applied today.

Fast forward
A light moment from a key drafter of the 1949 Geneva Conventions: “I was once accused of drawing up conventions that were too long. So I said, all right, I’ll do it in two articles. Article one: in case of war, all men will behave like angels. Article two: this convention only has one article.”
Jean Pictet, lead author of the Geneva Conventions for the ICRC, quoted in The Guardian newspaper in 1999.

1955 The Viet Nam war: What begins as a colonial war for independence from France later becomes a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States that escalates in the 1960s and ends with US withdrawal and a peace treaty in 1973. The Viet Nam war would become the longest lasting and deadliest cold war-era conflict.

1956: The Soviet Union crushes an uprising in Hungary. The League (now IFRC) responds as Hungarian refugees flee into Austria and Yugoslavia. Within a year it is managing 50,000 refugees in 44 camps. Meanwhile, National Societies in the Middle East respond to the Arab–Israeli war while a period of decolonization in the post Second World War era leads to the creation of many new National Societies, with the League (now IFRC) expanding to 100 members.

Conflict in Yemen
Photo: ©ICRC archives

1962 Conflict in Yemen: Armed conflict breaks out after the overthrow of the Imamate in the north of the country. The ICRC responds and, over the years, delegates provide medical assistance, visit prisoners of war on both sides and act as a neutral intermediary.

1963: The Movement celebrates its 100th anniversary. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the IFRC and ICRC on the occasion of the Movement’s centenary. 1965: The Movement’s seven Fundamental Principles as they stand today are unanimously adopted in 1965 by the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

1967: The Arab-Israeli Six-Day war brings about the first permanent delegation of the ICRC in the Middle East and its role of neutral intermediary in hostage negotiations emerges. 1968: The ICRC founds first orthopaedic facility in the Yemeni city of Sana’a. This later expands to five facilities, subsequently handed over to Yemeni authorities.

1968: The Biafran war: International media put the spotlight on the Biafran war and the Movement launches into action as the conflict becomes a turning point in the evolution of humanitarian aid delivery. Largely due to the Biafran experience, some ICRC staff leave in subsequent years to create Médecins sans Frontières.

Photo: ©ICRC archives






The Biafran war is “often presented as the opening moment of a new phase in the history of humanitarianism”, writes Marie-Luce Desgrandschamps in a special edition of the International Review of the Red Cross dedicated to 150 years of humanitarian action. The post-colonial civil war raises a number of challenges for the ICRC, an organization still rebuilding itself after the Second World War and not fully prepared to mount a massive and complex operation, she writes. Problems with logistics, an insufficient number of adequately trained delegates and problems communicating with other organizations, governments and armed groups lead to numerous lessons learnt and reforms. One overall result is increased professionalization and greater efforts to better coordinate humanitarian aid delivery.

“The modern ICRC was precisely born in Africa, at the end of the 1960s, on the smoking ruins of Biafra,” says ICRC delegate Jean- Marc Bornet in Between Enemy Lines, Delegate of the ICRC, 1972- 2003. “It was there that the new ICRC was carried from the baptismal font to a new humanitarian era on the occasion of putting into action a gigantic operation to save hundreds of thousands of victims of the civil war in Nigeria.

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the timeline

Photo: ©Alain Germond

IT'S A STARTLING SIGHT. A massive foot seems to descend from a darkened sky, stepping over images of people affected by disaster and conflict that are projected on the floor below. Around the room, small plaques display humanity’s attempts through time to rein in oppression, help the destitute or enforce honourable conduct during war: from Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi (circa 1750 BC) to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977.

This bold, monumental image is one of many evocative scenes featured in the newly reopened International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, where the many, often conflicting sides of human nature are on display.

The giant foot, for example, could symbolize many things: the power of oppression or of the enduring strength of humanity. “A huge foot could be one that crushes others, or one that runs, fragile and barefoot, for survival,” says Gringo Cardia, one of three architects chosen to create the museum’s three new spaces.

Under the banner, ‘The humanitarian adventure’, the new exhibits are an initiation into contemporary humanitarian action intended to instil a sense of hope and human resilience and a feeling that even small actions can make a difference. Indeed, the museum experience is anything but static. Visitors will have a chance to engage with many exhibits: in one case, they can play an interactive game that simulates the complexities of a natural disaster response. Faced with various scenarios, players make choices, take action and see the potential results.

A walk through the museum will also bring visitors face to face — quite literally — with people affected by conflict and natural disaster. In the Hall of Witnesses, life-sized projections of real people touched by conflict, natural disaster or humanitarian intervention tell their stories.

One of them is a former child soldier from Sudan, Emmanuel Jal, who speaks of how at first he wanted to avenge the violence perpetrated against his family. Then a humanitarian worker sent him to school and he regained some of his forgotten humanity, he tells visitors. “I started rapping and starting taking songs very seriously. Finally, the sky seemed less dark and I could rediscover a little of my childhood.”

Along the way, visitors will also meet a war crimes prosecutor, a landmine victim who runs ICRC’s orthopaedic centre in Kabul, an economic migrant struggling to feed her family, a journalist detained for six years at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and a young woman orphaned by the genocide in Rwanda, among others.

Some of the museum’s new exhibits put visitors in the middle of humanitarian action. Here, museum visitors can play a game in which they make decisions in response to a complex natural disaster.
Photo: ©Alain Germond

Exhibition of humanity

The radical rethinking of the museum began in 2006. Museum director Roger Mayou and his staff brought people throughout the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement together with leading thinkers in the museum field to explore ideas and identify key themes. Ultimately, they would select three architects from three continents (Africa, South America and Asia) to design the three main thematic spaces: To Defend Human Dignity, Restoring Family Links and Reducing Natural Risks. Meanwhile, the museum chose a leading Swiss architecture firm, atelier oï, to coordinate and collaborate with the museum on several of the key common spaces.

The museum’s architecture is itself an engaging experience. Though not everything in the museum has changed (long-time patrons will remember many of the same artefacts and some well-loved elements), a new organic touch has been added to the powerful concrete-based, 1980s design of architect Pierre Zoelly. Narrow, vertical blades of wood line up along the curving walls to create a ribbon of ‘living matter’ which threads through corridors and rooms that contain few right angles or straight lines.

Each thematic area, meanwhile, has a unique feel. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who has used tough, recycled paper tubing to build everything from bridges to short-term emergency shelters was chosen to design the exhibit Reducing Natural Risks.

A sketch by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré shows his vision to create a tower, made from concrete and hemp fibres to evoke the feel of a traditional hut used in central Africa. The tower walls are used to show photographs of children orphaned during the Rwandan genocide.
Illustration: ©Diébédo Francis Kéré

“We have built temporary lodgings, some schools and churches in the refugee camps in Africa and in the zones stricken by natural disasters using recycled tubes of paper,” he says. “In the museum, the tubes are arranged in organic curves and waves reminiscent of a forest or wetlands — it gives a sense of organic flexibility, of strength and resilience.

“We used these same paper tubes to construct the walls and ceiling, to create a space that is warm and organic,” says Ban. “We hope that this will allow us to sweep away the prejudice that says paper is a weak material.”

In Restoring Family Links, architect Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso uses metal and concrete to create natural forms that evoke the human need to stay connected to our roots in the midst of events that tear us from the family and natural world. The intrinsic link between the family, the roots and the natural elements are underlined throughout the exposition,” he says. One example are the tree-like structures that display Red Cross messages: from the trunk of a concrete pylon, branch-like metal pipes support frames displaying hand-written notes or pictures drawn with ballpoint pens.

Kéré also used support pylons to display Red Cross messages from around the world.
Photo: ©Alain Germond

Elsewhere, the sense of the organic and the human touch is expressed in the technicolour of the digital age. A collaboration between the museum, the École polytechnique fédéral de Lausanne and the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne, the exhibit Colours of Dignity, is a wall-sized, interactive touch screen of sorts that shows how even small actions, in this case the simple human touch, can create spectacular reactions. To the architect Cardia, who created the space where Colours of Dignity is displayed, the exhibit will “make people reflect on how they act in the world and how they can help others”.




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