chapter  27
15 Pages

The role of the International Committee of the Red Cross Kelisiana Thynne

The ICRC has been at the forefront of the development and promotion of international humanitarian law (IHL) since its inception over 150 years ago. The original neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian organisation, ICRC approaches IHL from a very practical perspective influenced by instances of violations and vulnerability that its delegates witness directly in armed conflict. It operates generally on the basis of confidential bilateral dialogue with all parties to the armed conflicts in which it works to assist and protect the victims of armed conflict – both combatants hors de combat and civilians. Much of that dialogue involves promoting greater enforcement of IHL in ongoing conflicts. Indeed, the ICRC has often been called – and, in the past, has occasionally named itself – the ‘guardian of IHL’. Nowadays, the ICRC is keen to separate itself from this nomination and role. It is states and other parties to armed conflicts which have the obligation to uphold and enforce IHL;1 Switzerland, not the ICRC, is the depository of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols. The ICRC wishes to be seen as a protector and persuasive enforcer of IHL, but not the crutch on which states lean to circumvent their own obligations in the conduct of their armed conflicts. Nonetheless, the ICRC remains very much at the forefront of promoting and interpreting existing IHL and developing new or extended principles of IHL, whether confidentially bilaterally in the battlefield, in multilateral treaty negotiations or unilaterally. The ICRC’s position as the original organisation responsible for developing and codifying IHL (from the very first Geneva Convention in 1864 to the Additional Protocol III of 2005), its mandate under the Geneva Conventions, as well as its continuing operations in the battlefield, give the ICRC an important and persuasive role in the interpretation and further development of IHL. However, there have been instances over the last ten years where the ICRC has been seen as too conservative and restrictive in a changing environment; in other circumstances it has been perceived as being too liberal in its approach to the interpretation of IHL and sometimes seen as going beyond its purely IHL mandate to stray into human rights and law enforcement environments. In many respects the ICRC’s role in promoting and developing IHL has changed over time depending on the circumstances, the reactions it has garnered from interested parties and its own

1 GCI-IV common arts 1, 3; APII art 1.