Introduction to the Symposium on Holder V. Humanitarian Law Project

By Epps, Valerie | Suffolk Transnational Law Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Introduction to the Symposium on Holder V. Humanitarian Law Project


Epps, Valerie, Suffolk Transnational Law Review


Ever since the Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, was horrified by the lack of assistance for the wounded at the battle of Solferino in 1859, the modern movement to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims of armed conflict has gradually expanded its scope of activities. Dunant's efforts resulted in the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863. That organization currently describes itself and its mission in the following language:

   The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an
   impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusive
   humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims
   of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide
   them with assistance. (1)

There are now literally hundreds of other organizations that also provide assistance during, and in the wake of, armed conflict. Such organizations provide food, water, shelter, clothing, medical help, resettlement assistance and a variety of other services to the victims of conflict. The great principle by which all of these organizations operate is that they remain neutral with respect to the conflict and that they supply aid in an impartial manner to any victims, regardless of the political affiliations of those they assist.

The role of the ICRC finds its legal basis in the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the two Additional Protocols of 1977, and the third Additional Protocol of 2005. (2) The ICRC describes the legal foundations for its activities as follows:

   The legal bases of any action undertaken by the ICRC may be summed
   up as follows:

   [T]he Four Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I confer on
   the ICRC a specific mandate to act in the event of international
   armed conflict. In particular, the ICRC has a right to visit
   prisoners of war and civilian internees. The Conventions also give
   the ICRC a broad right of initiative in situations of armed
   conflict that are not international in character, the ICRC enjoys a
   right of humanitarian initiative recognized by the international
   community and enshrined in Article 3 common to the Four Geneva
   Conventions.

   [I]n the event of internal disturbances and tensions, and in any
   other situation that warrants humanitarian action, the ICRC also
   enjoys a right of initiative, which is affirmed and recognized in
   the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent
   Movement. Thus, wherever IHL [international humanitarian law] does
   not apply, the ICRC may offer its services to governments without
   that offer constituting interference in the internal affairs of the
   State concerned. (3)

Many other humanitarian aid organizations follow the example of the ICRC by agreeing with the countries where they operate to remain neutral and impartial in their supply of aid. In recent years, one of the challenges to emerge in the chaos of conflict is the attempt by various armed factions to commandeer the resources of the aid organizations and use them for their own purposes, thus subverting the cardinal operating principles of neutrality and impartiality--which all such organizations fully understand as necessary to their continuing operations. These organizations are only too aware that if they are perceived as favoring, or facilitating, the operations of a particular party to the conflict, their credibility as an impartial humanitarian assistance provider will be wrecked and they will rapidly find themselves unable to operate.

Of course, there are also many political groups throughout the world that seek societal change and are definitely not dedicated to remaining neutral in conflicts. They often have dual missions. They may have a charitable arm that engages in activities such as building schools or hospitals, or providing food for the needy. In addition, they may also have a militant wing that is dedicated to bringing change through armed struggle. …

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