THE Red Cross, both as an idea and an institution, is passing through a period of stress and difficulty after the Second World War, as it did after the First. This is natural, for no matter how much material and spiritual aid was given under the Red Cross emblem, it was, of course, insufficient when measured by the wartime distress and suffering.

The International Committee of the Red Cross acted as an impartial intermediary between the belligerent states, and was in the thick of the fight in behalf of the victims. It won gratitude and respect for its work, but it has also been criticized. The criticism takes the shape of a demand that the Red Cross devote itself to the struggle for peace rather than to the relief of war victims; indeed, the question is raised whether considerations of humanity can, in point of fact, be upheld at all, in the conditions of modern war. And there is also a demand for a more effective form of international organization.

If the present problems are to be understood, some brief historical references must be made. In 1859, Henry Dunant, a citizen of Geneva, happened to be on the battlefield of Solferino, after the murderous fighting between the French and the Austrians. Appalled by the suffering of the 40,000 wounded who were left to die, he organized the neighboring villagers to aid them, and in 1862 published a story of the event called "Un Souvenir de Solférino," which made history in much the same way as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In his home town, Dunant gathered together four other men, two of them doctors, the third a lawyer, and, as chairman of the committee, one of the most venerated men in Swiss history, General Guillaume Dufour, the victorious and humane leader of the federal troops in the Civil War of 1847. This Committee of Five was the forerunner of the present International Committee of the Red Cross.

In 1863, these five men succeeded in calling a conference of 16 nations at Geneva which had two aims: 1, the establishment of committees of "Voluntary Aid Societies" in all countries, to organize in peacetime, with the assistance of all classes and creeds, help for the sick and wounded in war; 2, the conclusion of a treaty for the protection of all military sick and wounded and of the medical personnel. Both aims were promptly and fully realized with the signing on August 22, 1864, of the so-called Geneva "Convention for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded of Armies in the Field." The Convention, to which the United States adhered in 1882, was revised in 1906, and again in 1929; it has become one of the few universal instruments of international law. It stimulated the development of international law in regard to the so-called humanizing of war, particularly by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1929).

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881, and today there are Red Cross Societies of this kind in 66 countries. In 1919, on the initiative of the American Red Cross, they formed a League of Red Cross Societies, which devotes itself essentially to peacetime problems. In 1928, the national and international Red Cross organizations were loosely merged under a covering body called the International Red Cross, which holds periodical conferences. States signatories to the Geneva Convention are represented at these conferences. The next is to meet in Stockholm, in August 1948; it will be the task of this Conference to turn to the profit of the Red Cross as a whole the painful experiences of the last ten years.


The associations known as Red Cross Societies were established, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, to provide voluntary service in coöperation with the various army and navy medical services. During time of war they are granted certain special immunities by international law, namely, by the Geneva Convention, and have the right, as do the medical services, to display the Red Cross emblem for their protection. In order to carry out their duties efficiently, they must prepare themselves in time of peace. This is an obligation, since they hold their particular international status, their name and their emblem only by virtue of their service in wartime.

Nothing, however, prevents the national Red Cross Societies from undertaking humanitarian work far beyond their primary and traditional function, thus becoming a popular organization and gaining the support of the community as a whole. This tendency finds justification, too, in the fact that the medical services in modern armies have been immensely improved so that voluntary medical and hospital aid is comparatively less important. The size of the national societies and the extent of their undertakings vary in different countries, but with a world membership of some 64,000,000 adults and 41,000,-000 juniors, with all the hospitals, ambulances, welfare schemes and institutions, the work of the Red Cross has reached vast proportions.

The particular conception of the relations between the state and society which obtains in some countries puts special stress on the duties of the Red Cross to the community, and on its task as an agency for peace. Though the national Red Cross Societies were formed on the basis of independence from the state, they have never been uninfluenced by the social structure and the political, philosophical and religious ideas of the different countries. And the severe ideological tensions that have arisen since the First World War have drawn the Red Cross into those conflicts. It has preserved its unity because it refused to sacrifice the universal character of its work to a merely external uniformity of its national organizations. But, at the same time, the national Red Cross Societies and the organizations which constitute the International Red Cross have time and again emphasized certain principles on which there can be no compromise.

What are these guiding principles? In the first place, it should be noted that the Geneva Convention does not confine itself to claiming special immunity for medical and hospital personnel in the field. It also embodies a lofty ethical principle, namely, that no discrimination shall be made between friend and foe in the treatment of the sick and the wounded, and that no regard shall be paid to religious, political or any similar criteria: the defenseless enemy, even when taken prisoner, counts simply as a human being. This humane principle is the cornerstone on which rests the impartiality of all specific Red Cross activities. Help is afforded to all, regardless of the national, racial, denominational or political affinities of the helper; it is given because the sufferer is one of mankind, and it is given according to his need. Obviously, each national Red Cross Society serves its own country first, but whenever recourse is had to its assistance, it grants aid to all, without distinction. That principle likewise applies to Red Cross work in peacetime.

In wartime, the Red Cross has a second essential task. In assuring contact between national Red Cross Societies and governments, it acts as trustee between belligerents. As a trustee, it pleads the cause of humanity and advocates help for prisoners of war of every class, and for the civilian population of any occupied country. Clearly, this task becomes much easier when treaties such as the Geneva Convention of 1929 offer guarantees. But the attempt to extend such help must constantly be made when there are no treaties to fall back on, or when one or the other of the belligerents proves reluctant or even totally uncoöperative. If national Red Cross Societies decide to shift their activities increasingly to social work in the domestic field, and if some of them even abandon all relief for victims of war, the Red Cross as a whole must never relinquish its duty. That duty is to help all parties -- to promote humanitarian assistance on both sides of the fighting front, or to enable a neutral to extend it to a country at war, by all means that may be appropriate and acceptable to the belligerents.

True, the relations between belligerents are in the care of the protecting Powers. But the rôle of the Red Cross (and especially of the International Committee) as connecting link between both parties is not thereby made superfluous. The Red Cross does not seek to intervene as the mandatory of any particular state; it intervenes on its own initiative, for reasons that are free from political consideration of any kind. It also intervenes if there are no protecting Powers -- as in civil war, when international law as such has no validity because the two belligerents do not recognize each other as states politic. The actual suffering and destruction of civil war are, however, no different from that of a war between states. It creates a similar need for impartial help to the wounded, the prisoners, etc., and hence calls for the application of the humanitarian provisions of the Law of Nations.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has always considered that this duty to serve as a neutral intermediary between belligerents is a primary one. Although the headquarters of the Committee are in Geneva, its work is exclusively international and supra-national. It has never claimed a monopoly of this rôle. Several organizations carry on invaluable large-scale undertakings for the intellectual and spiritual care of prisoners of war, and neutral Red Cross Societies have furnished valuable aid to their sister societies in belligerent countries, and have served as intermediary between them. These neutral societies, even under the Geneva Convention, are at liberty to choose the belligerents whom they wish to help. But the International Committee must always offer its services to all belligerents on an equal footing, and must ask all of them for permission to carry out its humanitarian work. Its willingness to serve must not be made conditional upon any political or ideological affinities, nor upon any geographical considerations. Questions of prestige count just as little; the Committee may never withhold the offer of its services for fear it will be refused. Universal, impartial and unpolitical readiness to aid is its very raison d'être.


The Red Cross has a vital interest in the development of international law, applicable in times of war. For it is this law which applies to the difficult situation under which the Red Cross has to perform its most essential work. Ever since 1864, the International Committee of the Red Cross has felt that it had the duty, in conjunction with national Red Cross Societies and, whenever possible, with governmental experts, to put forward proposals for the improvement of existing international conventions and the conclusion of new agreements on matters not sufficiently covered or not covered at all; and it submits carefully considered drafts of such agreements. Thus the Committee took a most active part in the preliminary studies for the Conventions signed at Geneva in 1929. The International Red Cross Conference of 1938, which met in London, approved new drafts prepared by the Committee for the consideration of the governments of the various countries.

Draft texts have now been prepared by the Committee, in conjunction with Red Cross Societies and government experts, for consideration at the forthcoming Stockholm Conference. They take into account the experience of the last war, and will no doubt prove of considerable value to governments, who alone are competent to conclude treaties binding in law in this particular field. The most important innovation is the proposed instrument relating to the situation of the civilian population and of individual citizens of belligerent countries, whom events have placed in the power of a state at war with their country. The civilian population also requires protection against the methods of modern warfare, especially air bombing and long-range weapons. It will not be easy to enforce the claims of humanity in this respect against objections derived from military and political considerations, yet a new kind of warfare and a hitherto unknown menace to mankind call for new and precisely formulated international safeguards. The Red Cross will never tire of asserting this; indeed, it has not ceased to make the demand since the First World War.


It may appear an anomaly that up to now the International Committee of the Red Cross -- in the legal sense, an association of Swiss citizens formed by coöptation -- should have mainly, if not exclusively, formed the impartial connecting link for Red Cross work in its widest sense. In addition to the historical reasons, certain permanent political and psychological factors account for this. Such liaison work can be performed only from neutral territory, and by citizens of a neutral country. Experience has shown that in a war of many states, a body truly international in its composition is bound to be ineffective in this rôle. Even an agency that stemmed from a group of nations organized to preserve peace would scarcely be suitable for such a wartime task, for, if the organization failed to ensure peace, the Powers which had risen against it would inevitably charge it with partiality and would reject its humanitarian leadership along with its political authority.

Such intermediary duties can be carried out only by an agency which stands outside the conflict in all circumstances, and is as far removed as possible from major political considerations. Hence, a mere association, operating from a small country, is more likely to be effective -- precisely because of its total inability to use force -- than is an agency supported by the Powers. It is conceivable that an agency formed by all the neutrals in wartime might assume the task of intermediary which devolves on the Red Cross. But it would be subjected to every criticism that any of the belligerents might raise against any of the neutral members, and, in the course of a war, its membership might be changed repeatedly.

The decision to confide this intermediary task to a private body formed in one small, neutral state such as Switzerland has stood the test of two world wars in a manner by no means unsatisfactory. Switzerland will never voluntarily relinquish her political doctrine of neutrality, based on the tradition of centuries. Her neutrality may of course be violated; no organization, however conceived, can be certain of being untouched by the incalculable contingencies of war. What matters is that there should be a deliberate effort to set apart, somewhere in the world, a territory which is known as neutral, from which the work of the Red Cross can be initiated.

The wartime activities of the Red Cross as neutral intermediary depend largely on improvisation, and the ability to make quick decisions is hardly less important than the neutral base. The more complex the composition of such an agency, the greater the difficulty in assembling the persons able to assume vast responsibilities and to take immediate action. Since the International Committee of the Red Cross is formed by coöptation, it is accountable only to world opinion. Its members can usually assemble in the course of a single day and need seek no mandates for their decisions. An agency which attempts the difficult task of keeping constantly in touch with the belligerents of a life-and-death struggle must be independent, must be quick to take opportunities of establishing connections in every quarter and must supply abundant proof of fairness in its dealings with both sides. The consent of both belligerents is a prerequisite for its activity, and their goodwill is more important, perhaps, even than the organizing ability of the staff and the financial resources at its disposal. Experience in two world wars has shown that when the Red Cross failed to obtain some objective, the protecting Powers and other relief associations were impotent also. And, on the other hand, the Red Cross succeeded in making at least a little progress in directions in which every other organization failed entirely.

Underlying every aspect of the work of the Red Cross is the necessity of making clear the principles of the organization, and of maintaining their integrity and their universality. In international relations, perhaps even more than in domestic affairs, it is dangerous to assume that objectives can be reached by concentrating on methods and by passing legislation, if the moral premises are uncertain. Whatever incalculable events the future may have in store, there must be men and women ready to seek ways of helping the victims from motives of unconditional humanity. They themselves must be willing to follow this path regardless of disappointments, conscious only of the imperishable values on which all humanitarian action is founded.

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  • MAX HUBER, Vice President of the Permanent Court of International Justice, 1928-1930; President of the International Red Cross Committee, 1928-1944
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