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Red Cross fights 'new barbarism'

TERRIBLE things happen in all wars but the conflicts of the 1990s, such as those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia, stand out for the way civilians and prisoners have been subjected to massacre, rape and torture. Today the Red Cross will search for some answers to the "new barbarism" at its 26th international conference opening in Geneva.

The end of the Cold War has posed huge challenges for those involved in humanitarian aid; ethnic conflicts have revealed the impotence of the United Nations in curbing atrocities; economic depression has put strains on donors and the uncontrolled spread of light weapons has intensified civil wars.

Challenges from new humanitarian organisations and from the UN threaten as never before the identity and stability of the 132-year-old movement. The Red Cross emblem itself is ceasing to be universally respected.

In the past few years, the Red Cross has had to address accusations of secrecy, arrogance and isolationism. Its various bodies have attempted to be more open during the tenure of Cornelio Sommaruga, an assertive former Swiss economics minister, as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The conference agenda is clear, coherent and urgent. Many discussions will concentrate on issues affecting civilians: rape, famine and the deliberate destruction of sources of water. The "humanitarian deficit" - the growing gap between needs and the means to satisfy them - will be debated, as will the diminishing respect for humanitarian law. Some governments will be asked to put their names to proposals critical of their own behaviour.

The Red Cross was born on the battlefield of Solferino in June 1859 when a young Swiss banker, Henri Dunant, wandered among the wounded and marvelled at the callousness of governments in doing so little for casualties. In August 1864, a first Geneva Convention laying down the rules for the care and protection of victims of war was signed by the big powers. These have been extended and strengthened from time to time.

Today the Red Cross is still a private, independent Swiss institute, relying on funding from governments, with its headquarters in Geneva, presided over by Swiss nationals. Neutrality and confidentiality are at the heart of its reputation. It has forged a unique role with prisoners- of-war, political prisoners and the monitoring of international humanitarian law.

Political difficulties, as ever, will arise. Will Islamic governments agree to sit down with the representatives of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia? Will the Palestinians find an acceptable place beside the US deputation?

Whatever the outcome of individual resolutions and disputes, anything other than an endorsement of the Red Cross movement is unthinkable. Without it the future for military and civilian casualties of conflicts looks grim.