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The International Red Cross draws on history to confront modern warfare

1 May 2019

The Swiss Henry Dunant was on a business trip to Italy in 1859 when he witnessed the devastation left by the battle of Solferino. Jolted into action, he wrote a book about his memories of the experience and four years later, inspired by his intervention, the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded was convened.

It was a moment which changed history, as governments were persuaded to adopt the first Geneva Convention, which obliged armies to care for wounded soldiers, whichever side they were on. Its emblem – a red cross on a white background – has since been etched into global consciousness. In 1876, the committee was renamed the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC.

Today, the ICRC has more than 18,000 multinational staff helping people in over 80 countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine. Three-quarters of its CHF 2 billion budget is contributed by governments, with the remainder coming from voluntary donations. In contrast to many top-heavy modern charities, 93.5 per cent of the ICRC’s funds are used for work in the field.

Impartial Swiss roots

The organization’s roots remain in the country where it all began: Switzerland. A major contributing factor to its foundation there was the country’s neutrality. Prior to the ICRC’s formation, Switzerland had been involved in wars and exported mercenaries to other countries. By the late 19th century it had a unique blend of being diplomatically neutral, and without overseas colonies. Yet it had also seen the scars of war.

Switzerland has been a vivid example of neutrality”

“Switzerland has been a vivid example of neutrality,” says Yves Daccord, Director General of the ICRC, who, like all his predecessors, is a Swiss national. “The ICRC’s base in Geneva has highlighted our Swiss neutrality and is also the place where the Geneva Conventions were signed. And there are elements of the Swiss culture which are reflected by the ICRC: excellence, social control, confidentiality and working together.”

Much of the ICRC’s work remains the same as ever: being a neutral force for good amidst the anarchy of the battlefield. Today, however, its work has become more complex. It now addresses sexual violence, helping victims and working to eradicate it. Treating the wounded has expanded to include broader issues, such as clean water, sanitation and mental illness. Beyond soldiers, the ICRC’s humanitarian protection extends to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

We must engage with all sides of a conflict to show that we are impartial”

“We must engage with all sides of a conflict to show that we are impartial, because they are all watching what we do to check that we are,” Daccord adds. “We have no powers to impose justice, which would in any case be difficult for a humanitarian organisation. But we must try to exert influence in the best way possible, and use our weakness as a strength. We never take bodyguards to meetings, for example – we turn up just as we are.”

Technological threats

Beyond the longstanding problems of gaining access to war-torn states and regions – Syria, Sahel and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are current trouble spots due to the large number of competing armed groups – new threats are emerging all the time. New technology, artificial intelligence and nano-techniques are producing weapons which are set to transform the battlefield.

Before meetings with armed groups, they will search me before reaching the venue and strip me of any electronic device”

Within five to seven years, the ICRC anticipates encountering fully autonomous weapons no bigger than a mobile phone, which can independently identify people and select who to attack. Worse still, the inexorable march of technology means these weapons will be relatively inexpensive, and therefore widely available.

Alongside this is the threat posed by new technology’s ability to eavesdrop and collect data. “I see this in my work already: when talking to leaders of groups involved with armed conflicts, they don’t trust me anymore,” Daccord says. “It’s not because they don’t trust me as a person; they aren’t sure I am not bringing with me other people listening in or tracking where we are on my phone or watch. Before meetings with armed groups, they will search me before reaching the venue and strip me of any electronic device.”

It is a world that Dunant would barely recognise. Yet today, more than a century after he became the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, his successors are carrying on the fight in the same beautiful Alpine nation where it all began.

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