15 December 2004
by Annie Kelly
For more than a century, the emblem of a red cross on a white background has saved the lives of people in war zones across the globe. It has also acted as a badge of safety for those who wear it - volunteers and staff of the Red Cross Red Crescent movement worldwide who work to uphold international humanitarian law and provide relief to those wounded and trapped by conflict and disaster.
But now the neutrality and independence of the Red Cross Red Crescent is fast becoming a casualty of a global war on terror that threatens to obliterate the capacity of humanitarian aid agencies to operate in areas of conflict. The "with us or against us" rhetoric of the US-led coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan leaves little space for neutral agencies.
Sir Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, the UK arm of the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, believes that those conflicts threaten the future of the international organisation. "We are able to work across the front line for only as long as we are seen as neutral," he says. "The moment that sense of impartiality is lost, our mission is lost. We might as well pack up and go home. We'll be seen as part of the war machine and we'll be unable to operate."
The Red Cross Red Crescent, like other aid agencies working in Iraq and Afghanistan, has already become a target for those fighting the US coalition. The recent death of Margaret Hassan, the Care International aid worker murdered by unknown forces in Iraq, is seen as a watershed in the history of humanitarian aid. Nobody - no matter how good, how impartial - is safe.
"The respect that organisations like the Red Cross relied on, the sense that when we're wearing our emblem and doing our work we are protected, we are sacrosanct, is under threat," Young says. "The deliberate harming of people who are very clearly well known to be humanitarian workers is not something that is easy to talk about. These are symbolic killings. They say to us all, not just the aid agencies, but to society: 'Governments and the military, look ... something is going wrong here.'"
What has gone wrong was vividly brought home to him as he drove through the streets of Baghdad in a clearly-marked Red Cross vehicle last year. Local people shook their fists at him and complained angrily that the Red Cross wasn't doing enough, that it had a responsibility to clean up the mess that it had made. "I had a very strong sense that we were regarded as the occupying powers," he says. "And this was something I hadn't felt before."
This is what happens when the military and humanitarian agencies get confused, he believes. When soldiers dispense aid out of the back of trucks, how does the man on the street differentiate between them and the work of the Red Cross? "Of course, the armed forces and government have a responsibility to meet the humanitarian needs of people," Young says, clearly exasperated. "But they shouldn't pretend they're actually doing the real job of humanitarian aid work."
The only Red Cross weapon on the battlefield is its neutrality. Young admits that the movement has not been effective enough at communicating this. "People understand neutrality in very vague terms, but not what it really means on the ground. Take the negotiations you have to undertake on the border with young armed guards, who are frightened out of their wits, safety catches off their Kalashnikovs. What do unarmed, unprotected, Red Cross staff have to do to persuade that group of border guards late at night to allow 20-odd people who are wanting to rejoin their families to cross the border?
"This is very tense negotiation. You are putting your life on the line by even raising the subject of crossing in those circumstances, even being there in those circumstances. You wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance of succeeding if you were perceived as being on one side or the other."
Unlike other aid agencies, Red Cross neutrality is enshrined in international humanitarian law. Under the Geneva convention, it has a mandate to provide relief and protection and gain access to those affected by conflict or hardship. According to Young, it is the only neutral agency left to ensure that international law is upheld.
"Who will play that part in reminding nations of their responsibilities under the Geneva convention if it is not the Red Cross?" he asks. "The only body that remains is the UN, which, as we've seen, is a politicised organisation where the big powers have total sway. Without the Red Cross on the battlefield, more and more victims of war will go without, because we're not there bearing witness to their plight and making sure something gets done about it."
The US military appears not to care. It publicly snubbed the Iraqi Red Crescent last month by denying it access to the city of Fallujah, largely destroyed by weeks of heavy bombardment. It was a "hugely significant" gesture, Young says. "It sets a dangerous precedent. The Red Crescent had a mandate to meet the needs of the local population facing a huge crisis, and, given their neutrality, they should have been allowed in to meet those needs."
But what can the Red Cross movement do? The war on terror has meant that it can no longer operate in the way it has done traditionally, negotiating with both sides of the warring parties. Its values have been appropriated by the coalition military.
Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, notoriously called humanitarian aid "an important part of our combat force" in Iraq.
Young say this threatens the Red Cross mission. "The humanitarian space that we operate in has been narrowed; on one side by the sense that the white guys in the white Land Rovers must be part of the coalition force because we seem to be doing the same kind of job as them; on the other by the sense that the non-state groups don't understand international humanitarian law, don't understand the role of NGOs in the region.
"We have a very clear idea who the coalition are, but on the other side we have a very large number of groups, non-state actors with whom we are obviously trying to engage. And it's very difficult. They are not states. How can you make international humanitarian law real to them, and observed by them?"
There have been visible breaches of international humanitarian law on both sides. This is a conflict where humiliated prisoners of war are photographed, where people are held without trial, where westerners are executed and the video footage shown to an audience of millions via the internet. "We made the point strongly and publicly that neither side is complying with the Geneva convention, that there are abuses occurring," Young says. "We've had discussion about the treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib and in Guantánamo Bay."
Traditionally, this is the way the Red Cross has worked - behind the scenes, out of the public eye, constantly reiterating, reminding, reaffirming a nation's responsibilities under international humanitarian law. The question now is whether this works. "The Red Cross took a lot of criticism over Abu Ghraib," Young admits. "People were saying: 'Yes, you're making these representations, but prisoners are still being treated inhumanely. What are you actually doing?'
"The debate has to happen about how we can best help people in need. Is it by doing as we've always done, quietly, or do we have to make a more rigorous stand? My own view is that we need to be prepared to speak up."
The Red Cross has not been especially good at speaking up. Young speculates about how it might become a proactive, rather than passive, force for good; how it might use its neutral status as a "weapon not a shield".
To some extent, this is happening already. This year, the International Committee of the Red Cross took the unusual step of publicly condemning the "utter contempt for humanity" it says has been shown by all sides in the war in Iraq. In the UK, the British Red Cross broke with tradition and went head to head with the government over its civil contingencies bill, which had excluded voluntary sector organisations from having any formal role in emergency and disaster relief.
"Some of my older colleagues were horrified," Young says. "They told me: 'You can't do that - it's a political campaign, it's a revolution.' But sometimes you do need to get your point across, otherwise people forget you are there, which really would be a disaster."
The Red Cross Red Crescent needs governments and warring parties to listen to what it is saying, and Young believes that if it has to rip up its traditions to do so, then so be it, because the repercussions of failing are unthinkable. "The worst-case scenario is that the situations we work in get worse and worse and we are seen to have to pull out of an increasing number of conflict situations around the world," he says.
"The loss would be enormous - not just on the ground, but also the loss of human dignity. We pride ourselves on building a more civilised world, yet are we doing that if we allow this sense of help to people in vulnerable situations to just disappear? It's an incredibly dangerous situation for the Red Cross Red Crescent to be in."