Academic journal article Human Rights & Human Welfare

Noble Human Rights Defender or International Band-Aid? on Contemporary Humanitarianism

Academic journal article Human Rights & Human Welfare

Noble Human Rights Defender or International Band-Aid? on Contemporary Humanitarianism

Article excerpt


The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross by David P. Forsythe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

In David Forsythe's The Humanitarians: The International Committee of the Red Cross we see a microcosm of the internal and external struggles and dilemmas that human rights and humanitarian organizations face today. We see a picture of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as both the "heroic leader" and the "marginal social worker" (282). We see an organization at one time quite satisfied with its principles and ways of doing things, but also a movement which is internally divided and incoherent in many ways. We see an organization which is seemingly both incompatible and complementary with other human rights and humanitarian organizations. We see an organization firmly tied to states while also in opposition to them. We see an organization clinging to, and attempting to propagate, rules governing warfare in the face of many recalcitrant states, while at the same time setting aside the letter of the law when necessary.

The ICRC is a strange beast which raises not only questions for those engaged in the struggle for human dignity but also for those trying to understand the role of non-state (or at least partially nonstate) actors in global politics today. This essay will proceed in two steps: first, it will examine the ICRC (and the broader Red Cross Movement) as an actor itself; second, it will place the ICRC within the much broader realm of humanitarianism today, pointing to numerous questions related to the contemporary practice of humanitarianism.

First, a word on definitions is necessary. The ICRC is labeled as a humanitarian organization. This obviously is because it helps to provide relief and protection to those caught in conflict--both to civilians in need of food, shelter and medical supplies; and to soldiers after they have been injured or captured. Yet, it is also a human rights organization insofar as it promotes human dignity generally. Others, such as David Kennedy (2004), use the term humanitarian to describe activities undertaken during conflict as well as those outside of the conflict arena. In one sense, these are conceptually distinct categories. Yet, there is certainly overlap between the norms found in international humanitarian law and international human rights law (and, indeed, with international refugee law) to such an increasing extent that it sometimes may become meaningless to say, for example, that one is engaging in humanitarian action but not protecting human rights. In fact, Forsythe points out that one can talk about assistance protection as well as attempting to intervene with public authorities to help, for example, individual prisoners. This is a (non-)distinction that other actors like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also grapple with. The UNHCR talks about legal protection (i.e., trying to get states to uphold their obligations under the refugee convention), but it actually spends a lot more of its time and money providing on-the-ground assistance. Besides the obvious benefits provided by UNHCR action, such as food and medical care, the UNHCR also argues that its mere presence on-the-ground can be a disincentive for states or non-state elements to harm refugees (some very publicized cases to the contrary notwithstanding). Other organizations, like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, very obviously fall at the human rights end of the continuum since they are not operational. As discussed below, the sometimes very real practical distinctions between humanitarian and human rights or between different types of protection can lead to tensions within an organization like the ICRC or between different organizations.


As Forsythe points out, the ICRC is an organization very few people know much about. This is partly because of the secrecy inherent in the organizational culture and generally low profile it keeps, perhaps partly because, as an independent organization with strong ties to states and with a legal mandate provided by states, it does not fit within the theoretical and conceptual boxes to which we are accustomed. …

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