A) to be one of the success

A)   Historical background

The history of the ICRC starts with the Swiss banker Henri Dunant, who was shocked by the happenings of war during the battle of Solferino in 1859. Disgusted by the ugly scenes of the warfield, he wrote “Un souvenir de Soférino”. In this book, Henri Dunant described what he had experienced and what kind of association the world would need to prevent situations alike. He called for a politically “neutral” team of health professionals and for the creation of an association of volunteers supporting people in war times (Dunant, 1862). His book quickly became very popular. In order to implement the ideas of Henri Dunant, a private committee, called « le Comité des Cinq », registered as a private association under the Swiss law (Sandoz, 1998), was created in 1863 under the impulsion of Gustave Moynier. This committee was composed of five Swiss citizens. They all shared the same vision of the world, had similar social backgrounds and were driven by the same beliefs. This private committee is the premise of the ICRC.  In 1864, the committee convened a congress in Geneva to put into practice the ideas developed by Dunant in its book. The congress lead to the first Geneva Convention (Palmieri, 2012).

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Due to war and conflicts being frequently ignorant to political boundaries, the ICRC was originally created to perform its actions on an international scale. This is generally thought to be one of the success factors behind the ICRC.

B)   Historical link with Switzerland

The ICRC is based in Geneva, has been created by Swiss citizens. These links with Switzerland credibility to the ICRC’s principle of neutrality from the beginning. As we know Switzerland has a very long tradition of avoiding positions in conflicts. The ICRC adopted the funding principle of neutrality along with the ideas of independence and impartiality. As François Bugnion explained in his thesis, the neutrality of the international Committee of the Red Cross was built on the Swiss neutrality (Bugnion, 1994).

C)   Attempt to breach the historical link with Switzerland

In 1867 at the “Conférence internationale des Socétés de secours aux militaires blesses”, the Count of Breda proposed to transfer the headquarter of the ICRC to Paris. He was convinced that the French capital would offer more advantages to the ICRC than the city of Geneva could. At that time, Paris was thought of as the capital of Europe, being at the forefront of progress. To the surprise of the Count of Breda, the Conference’s members rejected his proposition without any doubt. The geographical positioning of Geneva, “the political neutrality of Switzerland, to which it belongs” (Bugnion, 1994), as well as the respect towards the founders’ nationality were crucial reasons for the committee to decide in favour of Geneva.

They reasoned that the neutral intermediary role of the ICRC could only be maintained if it has its headquarters in a neutral country which does not take part in conflicts. Furthermore, the size and minor importance of Switzerland international politics provides the ICRC with the advantage of making decisions independently of powerful states.

Although the ICRC based its principle on the Swiss idea of neutrality, the implementation of the concept is different.

First of all, the Swiss neutrality is a state neutrality. It is conferred by international law created at the Vienna Convention in 1815 and defines the country’s position during war times (Pauchard, 2015). It is referring to a system in which only states can take part. Contrarily, the ICRC neutrality, as explained by Cornelio Sommaruga, “was forged through operational practice and is founded upon the recognition of this practice by the international community. The ICRC’s neutrality derives directly from the imperative need for action proclaimed by Henry Dunant”. (Sommaruga, 1992, p. 267). The second point, as described by the former president of the institution regards “the basic nature and of the scope of the obligations it entails” (Sommaruga, 1992, page 267). By definition, being neutral for a state means not to take part in hostilities, but to treat all belligerents in the same way. For the ICRC, neutrality is guiding its activities and is an obligation permitting its personnel to act on the fields.

The third difference resides in the differing reasons that encourage Switzerland and the ICRC to be neutral. Switzerland’s neutrality is serving its state sovereignty. It is a mean to preserve its independence and integrity as a state. For the ICRC, neutrality is an obligation to fulfil its mission. It is an essential condition for the institution to continue its duty.

Nevertheless, even though the two concepts of neutrality are slightly diverging, the perpetual benefit of the relationship between the ICRC and Switzerland in terms of international reputation and acceptance remains obvious.

D)   First Geneva Convention

Back in 1864, the first Geneva Convention took place in Switzerland due to a demand of the ICRC to organize an international diplomatic conference and discuss the laws of war. This convention accorded a neutral status to wounded and sick soldiers, regardless of their nationality. This decision was the result of a long period of efforts and discussions with different governments on the side of the ICRC. After the first Geneva Convention, the crucial importance of the ICRC started to gain global acceptance. The rise of the ICRC is correlated to the first convention (ICRC, 2004b).

At that time, the Russian Red Cross started to question the mono nationality of the ICRC committee. The guidance of an international organization by a steering committee with a unique rather than diverse background was not in accordance with their vision of the ICRC. They pledged for a diversification of the committee three times in fifteen years, but the ICRC committee was strongly supported and defended by the federal council of Switzerland. In this way, the first 50 years of the ICRC history have passed without any big interruptions (Palmieri, 2012).

1.1.1.                World War I

A)   Development of the ICRC

Until the first world war, the ICRC remained a small organization with only 10 active members. Their main purpose was to promote the creation of the local societies of the Red Cross. At that time, the committee acted as a coordinator for the different Red Cross Agencies and provided help through publications and circular letters (ICRC, 2014b).

The first world war was a game changer for the ICRC. With the assassination of the Archduke François-Ferdinand of Austria, the first world war began. Reactively, the ICRC opened the “Agence international des prisonniers de guerre (AIPG)” (Sandoz, 2016). This agency was founded in order to collect information on war prisoners and send notes on their state of health to their families.

Through this Agency, the ICRC saw the number of employees and voluntary workers growing. At the end of 1914, the AIPG employed more than 1200 people. Even though the ICRC remained an association, the way it works clearly not as any other association. It was like an international organisation. Through the work with the AIPG, the ICRC gained new competences and earned operational skills on the fields. Basically, the ICRC acquired expertise in humanitarian aid. Due to its growing size and importance, the ICRC had to send off many members to foreign countries to maintain its diplomatic relationships. This was the beginning of the traditional job of ICRC delegates. In order not to loosen the strong bonds between the ICRC members themselves, hiring was restricted to people already known or recommended by experienced ICRC personnel (Palmieri, 2012).

In 1917, the ICRC took another step of its demarche toward prisoners. They asked foreign governments to grant them the right to visit the camps where they held prisoners of war. The result was a huge success from which every participant of the conflict benefited. This new diplomatic activity soon became one of the core competency of the ICRC.

B)   Gustave Ador

Gustave Ador, nephew of Gustave Moynier, entered in the ICRC committee in 1870 and took over the position of chairman in 1910. He was a well-known politician from the canton of Geneva. He was elected by the National Chamber to become Federal Council of Switzerland in 1917. Simultaneously, he was the President of the ICRC, which started to gain international attention at that time.

With Gustave Ador, the ICRC has for the first time a personal direct link with the Swiss Government. This link raised the question of the independency in a more sensitive way. However it permitted Gustave Ador to use the power of this double position to arrange a common agreement between Switzerland and multiple governments, which allowed the ICRC to convoy prisoners safely through Swiss territory and send them back home. This was seen more as a positive point for the ICRC. (Walter, 2002)

1.1.2.                Inter war period

A)   Pursuit of the ICRC’s task

After the First World War, the work load following the armistice was enormous for the ICRC. It was filled with multiple humanitarian challenges. They had to continue to repatriate the prisoners, visit the political detainees in Hungary, help the civilians and restore peace within many countries. The work of the ICRC was far from finished. (ICRC, 2010b)

B)   Tightening of the Relationship with Switzerland

The post First World War period is characterised by a tightening of the relationship between the ICRC and Switzerland. In 1917, it was difficult to separate the international organization from the political actions of the state.

As written by Thomas Brückner, “the ICRC became more Swiss in the inter war period” (Brückner, 2015). Even though the ICRC did a great job during the first world war, critical comments on its neutrality accumulated. Foremost, the American Red Cross complained that the ICRC would be “cumbersome, old and focused only on Switzerland”. 

Reactive to this harsh critic, the allied Red Cross created the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (originally the League). The federation was planned to coexist with the ICRC. The goal of the new entity was to continue the work of the ICRC during peaceful times. This new situation caused tensions to rise. From words to actions, the headquarters of the federation are moved to Paris.

Both entities then tried to attract as much international support as possible. The ICRC moved closer to the Swiss government in order to obtain more financial and political support from the state. In 1920 Switzerland made a donation of CHF 150’000.00, representing almost 30%  (Annual Report of 1920) of the annual ICRC budget at that time.

In this quest of backup, the ICRC founds the perfect crutch in the person of Giuseppe Motta. In 1921, Gustave Ador integrated his colleague in the ICRC chair board. Motta was the Swiss federal counsellor of foreign affairs. From that time point on, many different Swiss politicians became active in the assembly of the ICRC. William Emmanuel Rappard, Max Huber, Paul Logoz, the federal counsellors Gustave Ador and Giuseppe Motta as well as the senior federal officials within the governments, Paul Dinichert and Camille Gorgé, are the most famous examples. All these people were engaged in Swiss diplomacy and international relations (Brückner, 2015).

The last point to be highlighted in this period of time is the advantage Switzerland took from its strong relationship with the ICRC. Switzerland simply answered any critical question about Swiss neutrality by pointing to the support it gave to the ICRC. The state of Switzerland therefore used the ICRC like a “shield against critics” at the League of Nations.

1.1.3.                World War II

A)   Evolution of the ICRC

During the second world war, the ICRC tried to recruit as many people and create as many delegations as possible. The dimensions of work done by the ICRC were staggering: from 1939 to 1945, the ICRC was able to conduct more than 11’000 camps visits and distribute almost 500’000 tons of goods over the five continents (Bugnion, 1997). The challenges were enormous and the ICRC managed, to a certain degree, to live up to its mission (ICRC, 2010c).

B)   Symbiosis between the ICRC and Switzerland

The second world war period is considered one of the darkest in human history. Even though Switzerland kept its official neutral status throughout the period of war, there are many wrong decisions the State made and can be ashamed of. The international picture of the “welcoming, neutral state” of Switzerland was severely damaged by the compromises it made with Germany. During the second world war, the president of the Swiss Federal Council was attending the ICRC assembly. Due to the inability to prevent the course of WWII, both Switzerland and the ICRC suffered from huge decreases in popularity at that time (Palmieri, 2012).

After the horrors of the second world war began to shade off, some people started linking actions of the ICRC to happenings of the war and assign blame to the ICRC. The ICRC was accused of being responsible for the fate of the Russians prisoners in Germany, staying silent when the Nazis performed mass persecutions and being unable to protect Jewish people from the soldiers.

In 1942, the assembly was forced to discuss the essential question of whether to make a public declaration on the legality of dropping bombs on civilians and people in concentration camps. Discussions were lively and tense. Philipp Etter went to this sitting and when came his turn to speak he said that the interests of Switzerland were neglected. He explained that, being surrounded by the Axis, passing such a proposition would be madness; according to him, the assembly shouldn’t vote for this. At the end of the day, it didn’t pass it1.

This is one event reveals that it is hard to make a distinction between the two actors during this period of time as they almost had a fusional relationship. Isabelle Vonèche Cardia explained in her book “Neutralité et Engagement. Les relations entre le Comité international de la Croix- Rouge et le gouvernement Suisse pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale” that the relationship between the ICRC and the Swiss Government is infinitely complex. Dependency was not unilateral, and their links were essential to their survival. They were supporting each other in order to survive.

1.1.4.                From 1945 until the 1990s

A)   Critics after the WWII

In addition to the rising critics on the neutrality and power of the ICRC after the second world war, the ICRC had to face severe financial problems. The numerous expensive interventions pushed the ICRC resources to the limit. Moreover, the sheer physical lack of material was combined with a lack of structured governance. Max Huber, the president of the ICRC at that time, was old and sick. In 1944, he transmitted his position to Carl Jacob Burckhard. No sooner was Burckhard appointed than he was nominated by the federal council of Switzerland to serve as a Swiss ambassador in Paris. Huber therefore had to take back his position for a short period of time. The situation remained unclear and uncertain until the arrival of Paul Ruegger in 1948 (ICRC, 2010d; Palmieri, 2012).

The ICRC than aimed to create new definitions of war laws and expand the Geneva Convention. This resulted in the famous Convention we know nowadays that were adopted in 1949.

In this post-war period, the Swedish Red Cross proposed to merge the ICRC and the Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Others voices asked for an internalisation of the ICRC. Discussions and critics were stilled only by the explosion of the Cold War in the fifties. This attributed a new role to the ICRC on the international scene and saved the organisation we know nowadays. The situation commissioned the ICRC to mediate between the East and the West. The institution had to be neutral to play this role of intermediary and to do so, it was necessary to preserve its well-known and unique Swiss composition (Rey-Schyrr, 2007). The weight of this mediator task can be exemplified by the role of the ICRC in the missile crisis in Cuba. During this crisis, the ICRC was appointed by the UN to control the shipments going to Cuba to prevent any nuclear material to be delivered. This showed the importance of an independent humanitarian organization like the ICRC to the world (Perret, 1998).

B)   New perception of conflits

Two other conflicts in this period changed the functioning of the organisation: The Six Days War conflict in June 1967 and the Nigeria Biafra war. These two conflicts made the ICRC understand that intervening in situations of need is not enough. The ICRC work should not only be reactive to crisis, but rather anticipate crisis in advance and prevent and alleviate foreseen conflicts. The ICRC understood the importance of having delegates at all times and complemented its field actions with activities to improve the living conditions of the people residing in conflicts zones (Palmieri, 2012).

With the Biafra war in 1967, the efforts and the resource mobilisation of the ICRC grew to another scale. During the year 1968, the majority of the ICRC budget was dedicated to this civil war. The volume of humanitarian assistance exploded and will never decrease.

These wars revealed problems inside the ICRC organisation, too. The ICRC had to restructure itself (Desgrandchamps, 2012). A distinction was made in 1974 between the management body, acting as an executive, and the Committee, which continued to exercise legal power.

C)   Partnership with Switzerland

After the second world war, Switzerland saved the ICRC by donating money and avoiding the bankruptcy of the institution. Due to political, ethical and humanitarian reasons the Federal Council did not want to see the ICRC going down (Golay, 1990). The Geneva Convention of 1949 was, as the one of 1864, summoned by the Federal Council and showed the importance of the International Humanitarian Law for both Switzerland and the ICRC.

The Cuba crisis caused a cooling in their relationship. Switzerland played an important role by delivering messages between the US and the Cuban Governments. Nevertheless, the fact that the ICRC was chosen to control the shipment arriving in Cuba. This showed the importance that the ICRC took over the years on the international scene.

Switzerland and the ICRC partnered during the Biafra war. In 1967, the ICRC was criticised for its humanitarian aid management. The board asked the Swiss Confederation for help (Desgrandchamps, 2012). This call was answered by the Switzerland. The Swiss ambassador August Lindt was transferred to the ICRC and named chief commissioner for the action in Nigeria-Biafra, of which he took over the entire responsibility (Perrenoud, 2009).

1.1.5.                Since 1991

A)   The ICRC: a humanitarian enterprise

Seeing the premises of the new ICRC during the eighties, the ICRC took on a new dimension in the nineties. The collapse of the Berlin wall leading to a constellation of internal conflicts in the former URSS, the Balkan war, some internal African wars, as well as the Gulf war display the “humanitarian gigantism in the ICRC operations” (Palmieri, 2012). Active on almost every fronts, the budget of the institution had to grow exponentially. The workforce increased massively, too. Of course, this budget explosion and this workforce development went hand in hand with an increase in humanitarian activities.

By then, the ICRC has become one of the most important humanitarian organisation in the world. The ICRC can be thought of as a “humanitarian entreprise” (ICRC, 2012). Even though its mission and goal differ from the ones pursued by profitable companies, the way the institution works can be compared to private enterprises on many levels.

Today the ICRC employs more than 15’000 people over the world. It has delegations in more than 80 countries and is active worldwide. The overall expenditures of the institution for 2016 added up to 1.67 billion Swiss francs. 1.46 billion Swiss francs were spent on the field, 204 millions at the headquarters (Annual Report of 2016) .

D)   A new era

In 1991, Cornelio Sommaruga became the president of the ICRC. At his arrival, he put in place some rules allowing the ICRC to be much more independent from Switzerland.

1 Explained by Cornelio Sommaruga during my interview with him in October 2017.