International Committee of the Red Cross
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the founder and coordinating body of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement operating in virtually every country. It is probably the most instantly recognizable and reputable humanitarian aid organization in the world. It was founded in the last century as a strictly nonpolitical humanitarian aid agency to bring care and respite to the casualties of armed conflict and other humanitarian disasters. The ICRC’s unparalleled reputation was founded on the willingness of its staff to work in areas of conflict in order to bring comfort and dignity to those most affected by the consequences of war, particularly the noncombatant population.
During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the ICRC operated a large network of delegations and subdelegations throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina and the United Nations (UN) protected areas in Croatia. These offices were charged with implementing and overseeing ICRC operations, which included prison visits, prisoner exchanges, reuniting of families separated by the war, message exchange services, and a range of general relief activities. The ICRC coordinated many of these activities with local Red Cross offices, which were also struggling to provide humanitarian relief and other services. It also worked with many local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to achieve its humanitarian goals. The ICRC was instrumental in mediating between the warring parties whenever called upon to do so. It acted as a guarantor of even-handedness in activities that involved the warring parties meeting to discuss humanitarian and related issues, to exchange prisoners, or to transport refugees across military boundaries. Through its high-level contacts in the political world and in international organizations, the ICRC was one of the main parties impressing upon all sides of the conflict the need to respect the articles of the Geneva Conventions, the international treaty that the ICRC had been directly instrumental in establishing; this treaty lays down a set of “acceptable” rules of conflict. Unfortunately, the war in the former Yugoslavia was to see many breaches of the conventions of “acceptable” conflict, particularly on the issue of “ethnic cleansing” and the rights of noncombatant populations to remain in their homes.
As with the work of other organizations, the ICRC’s work in one region often became a bargaining chip with which to secure access to ICRC benefits for other less deserving cases in other regions. For instance, reasonable access to prisoners on one side was effectively possible only by instituting an aid program that would deliver benefits to the local population on the other side. This was obviously frustrating for those wishing to assist the most needy, but it was a largely unavoidable part of the conflict and a price that had to be paid if the rights and survival of those most affected by the conflict were to be addressed. It was, for example, the ICRCs insistence and ability to visit every prison camp in the region that largely led to the uncovering of the terrible conditions meted out to inmates in some of the detention camps located in the Bosnian Serb sector in the north, such as at Omarska. On several occasions the ICRC was charged with assisting in the ethnic cleansing process being carried out by each of the warring parties. When local populations decided that they had “had enough,” they were permitted to leave their homes (usually for a fee) and go to the region where their particular ethnic group was in the majority, or to a third country. The ICRC was called in to ensure that these people remained safe and were not mistreated on their journey. However, this situation presented a real problem for the ICRC: it could either refuse to assist, and therefore abandon whole populations to their fate within contested regions; or else it could help these people relocate to new areas (with the provision that these moves were temporary and the people could return at the end of the conflict) but thereby be seen to be assisting in the ethnic cleansing process. Most of these dilemmas were handled with patience and diplomacy and the ICRC was able to emerge from the conflict with its reputation for neutrality and impartiality intact. But the Yugoslav conflict certainly presented one of its most problematic fields of operation since the end of World War II.
Allcock, John B., Marko Milivojevic, and John J. Horton, eds. Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Burg, Stephen L., and Paul S. Shoup. The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention. London: M. E. Sharpe, 1999.
Sriram, Chandra Lekha, Olga Martin-Ortega, and Johanna Herman. War, Conflict and Human Rights: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7084900154