How much evil can you not see? – The Red Cross movement

Impartiality is still the best policy, a giant humanitarian network says

Published on The Economist, Dec 10th 2009.

AS EVERY student of warfare knows, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is staunchly, and at times controversially, neutral. Its work as a guardian of the laws governing conflict has obliged it to deal with all manner of bad people, including the Nazis.

Less well known, probably, is the neutral tradition of the other wing of the Red Cross movement, which is much larger: the network of humanitarian volunteers in 186 countries which offers medical aid and practical help to victims of disaster, both natural and man-made. But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), whose leaders met in Nairobi last month, is adamant that impartiality has served it well, and worked to the advantage of the people it succours. 

In the world of aid agencies, this notion has been hotly contested. A new kind of NGO—of which the best example is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), at least in its initial, combative mode—emerged in the 1970s after French doctors working in Biafra protested against the silence of the Red Cross in the face of atrocities by Nigerian forces subduing the rebel province. The founders of MSF, including Bernard Kouchner who is now France’s foreign minister, said aid agencies’ duties included “witnessing” against perpetrators of evil … //

… There are limits to the credibility of that principle. Many wonder, for instance, what concessions the IFRC makes to remain active in North Korea. The North Korean Red Cross claims 100,000 active local volunteers and 300,000 youth members. It is hard to believe (though the IFRC officially claims to) that these “volunteers” are free from infiltration by North Korean secret police. And impartiality does not always guarantee access. Eritrea has refused to recognise its national Red Cross society, disputing its claim to neutrality.

Still, veterans of the Red Cross movement can take quiet satisfaction in the fact that the more militant brand of NGO, including MSF itself, has moved closer to the Red Cross ethos of political caution. MSF learned some hard lessons during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda: it was forced to pool its efforts with the Red Cross and both bodies saw many staff members killed.

While the MSF’s early rhetoric of political engagement has been tempered by reality, the Red Cross’s practice of discreet silence, even in the face of terrible atrocities, has also become harder to maintain. As the head of MSF, Christophe Fournier, points out, there is now an almost uncontrollable information flow even in the world’s direst backwaters. That makes a “see no evil” policy tougher; it also complicates life for noisy advocates.

The regime in Pyongyang provides a big test case for aid agencies of any ideological persuasion. MSF has been forced out for being too outspoken, while the Red Cross remains—but at what price? (full text).

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