A recent column in The Jerusalem Post posed this very valid question, and qualified the program as “futile,” “naive,” “shortsighted” and, wait, “morally obtuse.”
It is striking how exactly it mirrors the criticism leveled at the International Committee of the Red Cross from the “other side.” When the ICRC took part in a recent conference with an Israeli think tank, another media outlet asked, “Why is the ICRC helping defend Israeli war crimes?” So predictable, so ill-informed.
First of all, a few basic reminders: The ICRC is a neutral organization. We do not take sides and we do not address the causes of an armed conflict.
We realize how hard this is to accept for those personally affected by it. But humanitarian work, to be truly effective, must be strictly dissociated from politicized views and agendas.
The ICRC is independent. It is not affiliated with a state, or with the United Nations or any other entity.
It is the only organization exempted from testifying to the International Criminal Court.
For the reader in a hurry, here is the short answer to the question of why we engage with all parties to conflict, including non-state armed groups: a) It works (not always, not as well as we want, but it works).
b) It is the right thing to do (provided certain conditions are met).
International Humanitarian Law – otherwise known as the Law of War – is not just ink on paper, it saves lives, if respected. Our work consists of disseminating the law to all those concerned, and much more than that. In a confidential manner, we engage with all the parties to have it respected on the battlefield, which all too often is in the middle of cities, crowded with civilians.
For the reader who is interested in the subject, here are a few keys to understanding why and how we do it.
Our engagement influences how military policies are defined and armed operations are conducted, locally and globally. It is the case with state armed forces, as well as armed groups of all types, operating in jungles, deserts and cities.
It is about simple things: Don’t kill your captured enemy, and treat him well. Don’t poison the drinking water. Protect women from harassment at your checkpoint.
Let the ambulance through the lines – don’t shoot it or misuse it for military purposes. And less simple things: stop indiscriminate attacks and those with disproportionate effects on the whole population. Issue orders so that civilians are not caught in the line of fire.
We are not teaching “table manners to the Taliban” as mentioned in the column. Nor peace, democracy or social and civil rights. Not to the Taliban, nor to the IDF, nor the Sudanese army, nor to US forces for that matter. But we do inform them about the rules of war and engage with them on ways to respect them.
Likewise, we do not endorse “terrorism” labels issued by political entities. Neutrality also means recognizing that someone’s terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter.
Today, most conflicts involve at least one non-state armed group. If we do not engage with them on IHL training and compliance, who will do it? Nobody else, in Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Mali, can do it the way the ICRC does. Moreover, it’s interesting that after being blamed for engaging with the “wrong side,” the ICRC is regularly criticized for not “doing enough on the other side.” Besides being contradictory, it ignores all the work, public or confidential, that the ICRC is doing (among others, for all missing persons) on both sides.
And yes, it really works. One example: In 2011, the Taliban leadership issued a clear commitment not to misuse health facilities and ambulances as perfidious means of war. The result was less misuse of ambulances (and presumption thereof by the other side) and thus enhanced protection of health facilities and personnel.
Right now, injured and sick civilians and combatants make it across front lines. Captured persons are accounted for and their families reassured. Civilians are being protected and assisted. Families reunited, as a result of to this discreet and unique function of the ICRC. It mostly happens behind the scenes, yet it happens.
Is this engagement good enough? Absolutely not – if it was, wars would be far less atrocious than we witness every day. It does not magically fix the inhumanity of war, but it helps countless people. That’s precisely why, all over the world, ICRC delegates keep trying to persuade those with the power and the guns to weigh more responsibly the military necessity against the impact on civilians.
This is a local but also a global battlefield: the front lines are everywhere, from Paris to Baghdad, from Aleppo to Peshawar, from the Sahel desert to Asian forests. It takes places in cyberspace and mainstream media. What happens in Gaza – or anywhere else – does not stay in Gaza, and concerns all of us.
There are real ethical problems to which humanitarian action is exposed. More often than not, however, commentators fail to see them, or invoke a wrong issue. For example, the very fact of liaising and cooperating with a party to a conflict (in this context Hamas and Izzadin Kassam, or, depending on where you sit, Israel and IDF) is seen by many as “wrong” because, it is said, “it legitimizes that party, and engaging with them on humanitarian issues helps them get away with their crimes by pretending to be good.”
Despite the fact the Geneva Conventions state that humanitarian behavior by an armed group does not confer on it any political legitimacy, in real life we all know it will be used to polish one’s reputation. Is it a bad thing? If it translates into better respect, less abuse – it’s good. Now, is it always right to, say, organize a workshop on IHL with any political and military group? The answer is no.
If no corrective action is taken by the party, or, worse, if it is a means to perpetuate or aggravate the abuse, it definitely can be a wrong, irresponsible thing to do. In such a case, we will reconsider, and not be fig-leaves or accomplices.
In this polarized environment, opposing sides go to lengths to blame the other side for any past violation of IHL. What the ICRC brings to the table is its unique work with the parties on what can be done to prevent future violations.
Last summer, during and after the Israel-Gaza war and its unacceptable human cost, the ICRC, while providing much-needed aid in the field, independently assessed how hostilities were conducted. It produced two separate, referential – and confidential – reports. We stepped up our engagement with both sides to look at the realistic measures that need to be taken by each side to prevent such a tragedy in the future. If the parties are really serious about it, they can make a difference. Our job is to tell them they must – and encourage them in that direction.
Do we equate the one with the other, morally or politically? Of course not. Neither do we “challenge the right to defend oneself vs the right to resist.” The ICRC is neutral, remember? Our way is to engage positively with all parties to conflict, wherever they are, whoever they are – as long as it is in the ultimate interest of the people affected by war. Close to them, in the rubble, amid the blood, the tears and the anger.
We leave the yelling names, and the blame game, to others.The author is head of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Israel and the Occupied Territories.