For more than 150 years, the Red Cross has remained neutral in wars. Today, it still defends that stance against critics as Russia ravages Ukraine.

In Ukraine war Red Cross defends neutrality against critics

A man presses paper with a red cross on it against the windshield of a bus as civilians are evacuated from Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, 9 March 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The Red Cross’s long tradition of neutrality is proving controversial in some quarters as it seeks to help victims on both sides of the war between Russia and Ukraine.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), established in 1863, acts as a guardian of international law. Its humanitarian arm, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), offers aid to victims of war and disaster with the support of many national Red Cross societies.

The ICRC, which has won the Nobel Peace Prize three times, has stood by its principle of neutrality since its inception.

Neutrality “is at the heart of our licence to operate,” ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini said last month. “This is how we build acceptance by parties to the conflict.”

“The Red Cross needs to nurture relationships with all countries,” Lucille Marbeau, an ICRC spokesperson in Ukraine, said in an interview.

Red Cross’s neutrality means it does not take sides in war.

The Red Cross seeks to maintain a dialogue with all sides in an armed conflict in order to persuade them to comply with the rules of international humanitarian law, said Miriam Bradley, an associate professor at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.

“If the ICRC took sides or declared that one side was the aggressor or another side had just cause, its ability to negotiate with the side it was not favouring would be severely undermined,” Bradley said.

Marbeau said the ICRC’s dialogues with both sides are kept confidential, which can be frustrating to the opposing sides in a conflict.

In some international conflicts, ICRC neutrality has been important to its success. The ICRC maintained dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Al-Shabaab during the 2011 famine in Somalia, giving it greater access to areas controlled by those groups and allowing it to provide life-saving aid to civilians, Bradley said.

But for some, allegations of war crimes by Russian troops have called into question the morality of neutrality in the present conflict.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized the ICRC on March 8, saying the organization was forbidding Ukrainians to use the Red Cross emblem on humanitarian mission vehicles.

“It’s very revealing,” the Ukrainian leader said. “Some influential people would rather ‘cross out’ Ukraine.”

However, the ICRC said use of the red cross emblem is protected under international humanitarian law and reserved for Red Cross missions.

Some critics say the Red Cross is legitimizing Russia’s aggression.

Some Ukrainians have objected to the ICRC’s plan to open an office in the Russian border town of Rostov-on-Don.

The Ukrainian government said on March 21, 2021, that opening an office in Rostov would legitimize Russia’s aggression and “supports the abduction of Ukraine’s citizens.”

Photos of ICRC President Peter Maurer shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on March 24 and thanking him for “positive co-operation” infuriated some Twitter users.

One Ukrainian drew parallels between Maurer’s friendly handshake with Lavrov to the Red Cross’s lack of action on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and other persecuted groups in World War Two.

In 1996, the Red Cross released documents confirming that it knew of the persecution of Jews in Nazi concentration camps but felt powerless to speak out. The ICRC has called its inability at the time to take decisive action or to speak out its “greatest failure.”

On March 25, the day after Maurer met Lavrov, the ICRC published a post on Instagram saying, “We speak to all parties to a conflict, to protect and assist victims. Under the Geneva Conventions, this is our mandate. Last week, our President was in Ukraine. Yesterday, he was in Russia.”

Russia itself has appeared to ignore Red Cross neutrality, shelling at least one of its hospitals and preventing its humanitarian teams from reaching injured and besieged civilians. The Red Cross has failed multiple times to get humanitarian teams and supplies to Mariupol.

‘In this age, we do not need the Red Cross to inform us of war crimes.’

“Ukrainian citizens feel abandoned in their hour of greatest need, while they are bombed indiscriminately and remain without food or water for weeks on end,” the Ukrainian Canadian Congress said in a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 27.

Newer aid agencies such as Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) believe that aid organizations have a duty to “bear witness” against perpetrators of evil, MSF Executive Director Joe Belliveau said.

The Nobel committee noted in awarding MSF the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 that the organization “calls public attention to humanitarian catastrophes, and by pointing to the causes of such catastrophes, the organization helps to form bodies of public opinion opposed to violations and abuses of power.”

But Belliveau said his organization’s biggest challenge is deciding when and how to speak out. “We need faith and trust in MSF to help people in their deepest hour of need,” and exacerbating a politicized environment can impede MSF’s ability to help, he said.

Bradley said that the ICRC, acknowledging its inaction during World War Two, “now makes explicit that neutrality does not necessarily imply staying silent when it has knowledge of serious violations of international humanitarian law, and that under certain — albeit limited — conditions, it will publicly denounce the perpetrators of such violations.”

Bradley continued: “The fact that the ICRC does not publicly accuse Russia of war crimes does not mean that the world is ignorant of such crimes. In the age of CNN, we do not need the ICRC to keep us informed about who is violating international humanitarian law.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why has the Red Cross historically remained neutral in times of war?
  2. Why are some Ukrainians and supporters of Ukraine criticizing the Red Cross for its work in that country?
  3. Do you think humanitarian aid groups should denounce perpetrators of war crimes?
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Katharine Lake Berz is a management consultant and writer, and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She was a consultant at McKinsey & Company for 10 years and has since advised a number of not-for-profit organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Master of Philosophy in International Relations from Cambridge University.

Daneese Rao

Daneese Rao is a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and writes about history and culture. She received her Master of Arts in History from McGill University in 2020.

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Educators' CatalogIn Ukraine war, Red Cross defends neutrality against critics