Inside File: Red Cross seeking a new lease of life

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Red Cross is seeking to relaunch both the Geneva Conventions and itself at the end of the month. Given the global attention focused on the war victims of Bosnia, it may seem a topical time to hold a meeting entitled the 'International Conference for the Protection of War Victims'. The conference, which opens in Geneva a week on Monday, is being prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and will be hosted by the Swiss government, depository power of the Geneva Conventions. The International Committee, whose members are all required to be Swiss nationals, is the body entrusted by the 1949 Conventions with providing relief to war victims and visiting prisoners of war.

But as invitations went out only last month, Britain is still half-heartedly thrashing around for a minister to send who is not otherwise engaged or on holiday. The lack of urgency may be compounded by the fact that the conference is to be chaired by the little-known Swiss Foreign Minister, Flavio Cotti. At the moment the UK team is to be headed by a Foreign Office legal expert.

The conference will be looking for a 'renewed commitment' to the Geneva Conventions. That the commitment is faltering is not surprising. There has never been independent enforcement of the conventions; each signatory state must be relied on to observe them. The old argument has been that it is in the interests of military commanders to observe the rules: for instance, that it is a waste of weaponry to attack civilians. Characteristically, said a Red Cross legal expert, the war that abided most by the conventions was one with very few civilians around: the Falklands.

Yet with 'ethnic cleansing' emerging as a primary war goal in the former Yugoslavia, that reason has been turned on its head. 'Our Achilles' heel has become forced displacement, which, while contrary to humanitarian law, has become a political objective,' said Yves Sandoz, the ICRC head of legal affairs.

On the subject of 'renewed commitment', it is worth noting that Britain has still not ratified two additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions. Designed to extend protection for civilians, the documents have been 'studied' by the Government since they were finalised in 1977.

'It is a long and complicated process with legal implications involving extensive consultations within Whitehall and also with our allies,' said a British diplomat. 'That's why it's taken 16 years.'

The documents, known as Protocol I and Protocol II, deal with international and non-international conflicts respectively. Among the allies in question, the US, like Britain, has ratified neither, while France has ratified only Protocol II.

What these nations have in common speaks for itself. As an ICRC source said: 'Although Protocol I was agreed on the understanding that it would not apply to the use of nuclear weapons, there isn't any article saying that. If one were simply reading the treaty on its own, one could argue it applies to nuclear weapons as well. But there are ways around that. When Britain, France and the US do ratify, they would be able to say they were doing so on the understanding it wouldn't apply to nuclear use.'

Departments which have been studying the protocols since 1977 include Defence, Home Office - and the Northern Ireland Office. The latter also speaks for itself: 'If one reads the protocols, it is clear they do not apply over there. But Northern Ireland is one of the questions the British have raised over the years.'

As an 1863 by-product of the 1859 Battle of Solferino, which killed 48,000 people in 48 hours, the Red Cross long predates the UN. Yet during the conflict in Bosnia, it has been consistently upstaged by other humanitarian agencies, specifically the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is the voice on the airwaves of Sylvana Foa, the UNHCR spokeswoman, which has come to symbolise the humanitarian effort in Bosnia. 'There has been internal criticism and external pressure for us to be more visible,' said Christian Kornevall, the ICRC's head of public affairs. 'It started when the UN took journalists on their convoys, and the ICRC did not. We find it easier to get access without journalists.'

The ICRC has been criticised for not speaking up against atrocities they have discovered, leaving the media to do their own digging - as with the detention camps last year. 'We have a dilemma as to whether to act or to speak,' said Mr Kornevall. 'It's difficult to play both roles. If we condemn, it prevents our access to help the victims.' Anyway, said Mr Sandoz, 'I hate this idea of humanitarian competition. If anyone else does a good job, so much the better.'