By its own somber admission, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) failed as a humanitarian organization during the Holocaust because it had “lost its moral compass.” In a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 2015, Peter Maurer, who served as ICRC president at the time, stated that “the ICRC failed to protect civilians and most notably, Jews persecuted and murdered during the Nazi regime.”
Today’s question is this: will the ICRC, as one of the most respected organizations in the world, find its “moral compass” in time to make a notable difference in the face of the current human catastrophe? Will it learn “the hard lessons of the past,” that is, not to prioritize strict adherence to neutrality in spirit and action above moral prerogative?
Today’s world is in desperate need of leadership in this struggle between human decency and barbarity. Hamas soldiers are not waging a war but rather a human-orchestrated catastrophe, constantly abrogating international laws on the conduct and methods of their so-called warfare. No ambiguity exists, whether it was mobile killing squads over 80 years ago, or Hamas terrorists in our age, who murder everything in their path, beheading men, women and children. The world is facing the greatest challenge since the end of WWII, and the ICRC must help pave the way back to safety by finding its moral compass.
At a meeting with the Red Cross president on November 14th, Israeli Foreign Minister Avi Cohen expressed that the ICRC must “work through all channels to visit the hostages as soon as possible.” We needed the Red Cross long ago during the Holocaust and they were missing in action. Now, not just Israel, but the international community is counting on the Red Cross to try harder, to exert more pressure on Hamas leaders and to be more vocal than the ICRC was nearly 80 years ago with the Nazis.
To their credit, the ICRC’s institutional record regarding concentration camp inmates during World War II is transparent and easily accessible. Even the most amateur historian can discern that the difference in the amount of aid provided to prisoners of war, both Allied and Axis, contrasts vividly with that given to Jewish prisoners in concentration camps. The reasons: Jews were not really POWs, the Nazi leaders denied the ICRC access, and finally, ICRC actions toward the so-called enemies of the Third Reich might have compromised the organization’s oath of neutrality.
The bottom line was that when Jews were being shipped off in cattle cars, the ICRC looked on “helplessly and silently.” They did not really try, or try hard enough, to pressure the Nazi regime as the lack of correspondence between ICRC and Nazi officials suggests, as well as the superficial visit of the ICRC to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944. That visit was all an elaborate hoax.
Unfortunately, perfunctory gestures and standard procedures on the part of the ICRC were not what was needed then to alleviate the suffering of Jews and other so-called enemies of the Nazis. So too, in the wake of the barbarity on October 7, 2023, the situation calls for bold and extreme counter measures to mitigate the horrendous plight of those taken hostage by Hamas.
Coupled with the ICRC’s failure to act with humanitarian aid, the organization never publicly denounced the Nazis for the policies toward Jews: ghettoization, deportation in cattle cars, and mass murder. Some may say that it is not the role of the ICRC to speak out, but not former ICRC President Cornello Sommaruga. He was the first to publicly recognize that the organization’s failure to speak out was a moral defeat. Since the 1990s, according to Maurer, the organization has chosen not to let itself be cornered by the binary logic of silence vs. denunciation which in the past has led to paralysis of the ICRC.
Today’s president of the ICRC, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger in Geneva, has apparently not been cc’d on the message of her predecessors “that silence is not a moral alternative.” At least regarding the position of Israel in defending its citizens and its homeland, little has been spoken or written since the October 7th attack.
Social media has an immense influence on the public perception of the conflict and the ICRC media apparatus has skewed the narrative and images in favor of disproportionately portraying the suffering of civilians in Gaza. Unfortunately, this is contributing to shaping perspectives against Israel and in turn fomenting antisemitism. The Jerusalem Institute of Justice conducted a detailed examination of the Red Cross’s social media since the beginning of the Hamas/Israel War. In a letter sent by the Jerusalem Institute of Justice to the president of the ICRC, they state that a more robust stance against the violations of humanitarian law committed by Hamas might have been expected.
No doubt it is easier for the ICRC to work towards its humanitarian aid efforts with legitimate states than with terrorist governmental organizations. But since Hamas was elected in 2006 as the “representative” government of Gaza, it has clearly demonstrated that international sanctions are not its concern, nor is human life. This unique stance unfortunately renders traditional approaches and methods by which the ICRC provided humanitarian aid as obsolete. Now more than ever, aggressive initiatives including mobilizing high-level contracting parties must be undertaken.
Eighty years is a lifetime and an appropriate moment to rethink how the horrors of the Holocaust may have been mitigated if bolder, more assertive action, would have replaced standard procedure. It is hoped that the ICRC will do just that.