The Status of the Red Cross in Asymmetric Warfare

Since World War I, the status of the International Red Cross has been clear to all sides engaged in warfare around the world. Perhaps, the extent to which all states, even those who do not respect human rights, have honored the status of this organization, is surprising. The International Red Cross was always viewed differently than other NGOs or human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and others, as it acts fairly and objectively, and with full respect for international law. Thus, the International Red Cross enjoyed a type of consensus and was able to attend to the humanitarian needs of all sides engaged in warfare.

The status of the Red Cross was respected within the context of conventional warfare – however, terrorism has changed the face of warfare. Terror organizations do not respect the definition of the combatant, intentionally target civilians, utilize kidnappings, murder, and ethnic cleansing, and other cynical methods. In the new asymmetric warfare, states, which uphold international law, face terror organizations, who ignore it. Humanitarian organizations, including the Red Cross, have not successfully adapted to this new reality. The way that terror organizations treat hostages and prisoners of war does not allow the Red Cross to play its traditional role of ensuring their welfare and mediating negotiations towards their release.

Terror organizations do not recognize the International Red Cross as a legitimate, unbiased mediator, and thus it cannot play a constructive role. Thus, its roles as mediator and humanitarian actor have been weakened. States have no ability to engage in negotiations through a mediator such as the Red Cross – resulting in groups such as ISIS using broadcast executions to advance their reign of terror.

Even during the Holocaust, Nazi Germany understood the importance of the Red Cross’ role. In June 1944, Himmler invited the International Red Cross to visit the the Theresienstadt ghetto to illustrate the “good” treatment that the Jews received. It was all an elaborate hoax. The ghetto itself was “beautified” as gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. Despite this grotesque manipulation, this example illustrates that even Nazi Germany was aware of the importance of respecting the status of the Red Cross.

However, in today’s reality, the terror organizations which are embattled with states who respect international law do not respect the role of the Red Cross. Thus, prisoners of war and hostages taken by such organizations have little hope for humanitarian treatment and possible release.

The world must not allow this situation to continue. There is a global interest to foster a new role for the International Red Cross as a possible mediator with terror organizations. From the actions of the Nazis, we can see that that even the most evil Fascist regime could be coaxed to engage in some kind of dialogue with the Red Cross.

The new reality of asymmetric warfare in which civilians, often women and girls, are captured as hostages, executed or sold into slavery, must be confronted. We must think anew of ways to create a framework in which the Red Cross can assist in altering this horrid reality.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center