Geneva-based Red Cross celebrates 150th birthday
Founded to care for victims of war, the International Committee of the Red Cross faces tough tasks, is sometimes found wanting, but always knows how to adapt to shifting challenges.
The Swiss-based ICRC marks its 150th anniversary on February 17th, making it the world's oldest humanitarian organization still in existence.
Historians say that the reasons for that longevity are rooted in rules put in place by the Swiss quintet who created it in 1863: the philanthropist Henry Dunant, lawyer Gustave Moynier, physicians Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir, and general Guillaume-Henri Dufour.
Shocked by the fate of the wounded at the 1859 Battle of Solferino between French and Austrian troops in northern Italy, Dunant had launched a campaign to set up international rules on caring for wounded soldiers, notably prisoners.
Daniel Palmieri, in charge of the ICRC's archives at its Geneva headquarters, said the organization created in 1863 was unlike other charities that existed at the time.
Palmieri pointed to its "universal dimension" — pushing for equal treatment regardless of a soldiers' uniform.
The idea of neutrality was a bedrock of Swiss foreign policy.
The concept of non-partisan care rapidly won international support, and the First Geneva Convention was signed by 12 nations on August 22nd 1864.
It was the world's first international humanitarian law, and a cornerstone for a raft of accords that were piloted by the Red Cross.
The organization's goal was to help the law evolve to keep up with the changing character of conflict, while guarding its autonomy of action.
In 1914, the First Wolrd War marked a turning point for the ICRC, Palmieri said.
"Two months after the start of hostilities, the ICRC's staff had grown from a dozen to 120," he told AFP.
By the end of the year, 1,200 people were involved in caring for prisoners of war, and the ICRC's first "delegations" outside Switzerland had been set up.
The organization also broke with its traditional of only employing Swiss staff, though the longstanding rule that its steering committee only have Swiss members remains in place to this day.
"The conflict forced the ICRC to take into account new combat methods such as gas, and new forms of violence such as civil wars, revolutions and uprisings, as well as new categories of victims, such as political prisoners, civilians in occupied territories, hostage, the disappeared, and refugees," said Palmieri.
In the wake of the First World War, the ICRC lost ground to the League of Red Cross Societies, created in 1919 at the behest of the American Red Cross and swiftly joined by counterparts from Britain, France, Japan and Italy.
"There was a kind of Red Cross war, with the Geneva David finally beating the Anglo-Saxon Goliath," said Palmieri.
The situation was repeated after the Second World War, when the Swedish Red Cross pushed for full internationalization of the ICRC, until the Cold War set things in stone.
The Second World War marked a massive leap forward in size, means and methods-
But it also saw one of the darkest chapters in ICRC history as its quest to remain neutral led it to stay silent about Nazi German concentration camps.
It took decades for the organization to finally digest that era.
In 2002, the ICRC's director of international law, François Bugion, acknowledged that the Second World War had marked a "painful failure" on its part.
"The ICRC remained a prisoner of its traditional methods of operation and didn't measure — or did not want to measure — the full impact of what was happening," Bugion said at the time.
"It didn't know how to deal with that by switching priority and taking steps and risks as required by the situation."
The ICRC had considered a public calling to account of the Nazis in 1942.
It held off in part because it felt it would have little impact, but also to avoid creating problems for neutral Switzerland.
In the ensuing decades, the ICRC decided to recraft its relationship with its host nation in order to better protect its own independence, said Bugion.
That led to a 1991 deal under which Switzerland granted it the same kind of diplomatic immunity enjoyed by bodies such as the United Nations agencies based in Geneva.
Almost bankrupt after the Second World War, today's ICRC employs over 12,000 people, mostly non-Swiss, around the world and has a budget of $1.2 billion.