Skip to main content

ICRC Privilege in Canada


This article explores whether the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) enjoys testimonial privilege before Canadian courts. The authors argue that there is strong evidence to suggest that customary international law requires that the ICRC be granted a privilege not to testify or disclose confidential information in domestic court proceedings. Such a privilege, they argue, is entailed by the ICRC’s mandate to engage in international humanitarian law protection activities using confidential means. Given that customary international law forms part of the common law in Canada, the authors argue that this privilege should be recognized by Canadian courts despite its potentially uneasy fit with traditional Canadian evidence law.


Cet article cherche à savoir si le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge (CICR) bénéficie d’un privilège de ne pas témoigner devant les tribunaux canadiens. Les auteurs font valoir qu’il existe de fortes raisons de croire que le droit international coutumier exige que le CICR soit accordé un privilège ni de témoigner ni de divulguer des informations confidentielles devant les instances nationales. Un tel privilège, affirment-ils, découle du mandat du CICR de se livrer à des activités de protection, en vertu du droit international humanitaire, à l’aide de moyens confidentiels. Étant donné que le droit international coutumier fait partie de la common law au Canada, les auteurs affirment que ce privilège devrait être reconnu par les tribunaux canadiens en dépit du fait qu’il soit potentiellement mal-adapté au droit canadien de la preuve existant.

Hide All

1 United States of America v Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Military Commissions Trial Judiciary AE 013BBB/108T (Order) (6 November 2013), online: <> [Guantanamo].

2 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 31; Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 85; Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 135 [Geneva Convention III]; Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 287 [collectively Geneva Conventions].

3 Daniel Cahen, quoted in Anna Nelson, “Why Confidentiality Matters,” Intercross (Blog) (19 November 2013), online: <>.

4 Guantanamo, supra note 1.

5 Saunders Phillip M, “Canada” in Reinisch August, ed, The Privileges and Immunities of International Organizations in Domestic Courts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 73 at 74–75.

6 For a view that legal personality is not a necessary or even useful starting point for analyzing the unique role and mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), however, see Tarcisio Gazzini, “A Unique Non-State Actor: The International Committee of the Red Cross” (2010) 4:1 Hum Rts & Intl Legal Discourse 32.

7 See, eg, Gabor Rona, “The ICRC’s Privilege Not to Testify: Confidentiality in Action: An Explanatory Memorandum” (2002) 84:845 Intl Rev Red Cross 207.

8 Geneva Convention III, supra note 2, incorporated domestically in Canada through the Geneva Conventions Act, RSC 1985, c G-3. Note that the ICRC has a broader humanitarian mandate within the context of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, but that in this article we focus on the organization’s role in armed conflict; accordingly we leave open the question of whether privilege should attach to ICRC communications outside of the armed conflict context.

9 Geneva Convention III, supra note 2, arts 125–26. For other references to the ICRC in international humanitarian law (IHL) treaties and, indeed, for a comprehensive look at the ICRC’s legal personality, see A Lorite Escorihuela, “Le Comité international de la Croix Rouge comme organisation sui generis? Remarques sur la personnalité juridique internationale du CICR” (2001) 105 RGDIP 581.

10 See Amaratunga v Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, 2013 SCC 66, [2013] 3 SCR 866 at para 29 [Amaratunga]. Having made this point, it is also important to recognize that the ICRC’s role, as widely accepted by states, has moved beyond the strict confines defined in the treaty texts. See Giladi Rotem & Ratner Steven, “The Role of the International Committee of the Red Cross” in Clapham Andrew, Gaeta Paola & Sassoli Marco, eds, The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 525.

11 Observer Status for the International Committee of the Red Cross, GA Res 45/6, UNGAOR, 45th Sess, Supp No 49, UN Doc A/45/49 (1990) at 15; Jakob Kellenberger, “Application of International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights and Refugee Law: UN Security Council, Peacekeeping Forces, Protection of Human Beings in Disaster Situations” (Statement delivered by the President of the ICRC at the International Conference of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, 8 September 2005), online: <>; Chandler P Anderson, “The International Red Cross Organization” (1920) 14:1/2 AJIL 210 at 212.

12 Agreement between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss Federal Council to Determine the Legal Status of the Committee in Switzerland, 19 March 1993, reprinted in (1993) 33:293 Intl Rev Red Cross 152, art 1, online: <> [Swiss Agreement]. On the significance of this and other headquarters agreements for the potential existence of a customary norm related to the ICRC’s legal personality, see Giovanni Distefano, “Le CICR et l’immunité de juridiction en droit international contemporain: fragments d’investigation autour d’une notion centrale de l’organisation internationale” (2002) 12 SZIER 355.

13 At the time of writing, the ICRC has not publicly disclosed the precise number of such agreements, but it is generally considered to be over sixty. See Rona, supra note 7 at 210.

14 Dominik Stillhart, “Confidentiality: Key to the ICRC’s Work but Not Unconditional,” ICRC Resource Centre (20 September 2010), online: International Committee of the Red Cross <>.

15 Germany, Federal Foreign Office, International Humanitarian Law (19 November 2012), online: Federal Foreign Office <>.

16 Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act, SC 1991, c 41 [FMIOA].

17 On the legal personality of organizations not subject to FMIOA orders, see Saunders, supra note 5 at 84.

18 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977, 1125 UNTS 3; Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977, 1125 UNTS 609 [collectively Additional Protocols].

19 Reparation for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations, Advisory Opinion, [1949] ICJ Rep 174 [Reparations]; Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945, 1 UNTS 16 [UN Charter].

20 Gautier Philippe, “The Reparation for Injuries Case Revisited: The Personality of the European Union” in Frowein JA & Wolfram R, eds, Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law (Alphen den Rijn, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 2000) 331, online: <>.

21 For the criteria used to determine when the ICRC will waive its privilege, see “The International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC’s) Confidential Approach” (2012) 94:887 Intl Rev Red Cross 1135, online: <> [“Confidential Approach”].

22 See Giladi & Ratner, supra note 10.

23 Prosecutor v Blagoje Simic et al, IT-95-9, Decision on the Prosecution Motion under Rule 73 for a Ruling Concerning the Testimony of a Witness (27 July 1999) at para 76 (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Trial Chamber), online: ICTY <>.

24 This is similar to the “innocence at stake” exception to informer privilege, which, along with solicitor-client privilege, is one of two “class” or “blanket” privileges recognized in Canadian law. R v McClure, 2001 SCC 14 at para 28, [2001] 1 SCR 445 [McClure].

25 Prosecutor v Blagoje Simic et al, IT-95-9, Separate Opinion of Judge David Hunt on Prosecutor’s Motion for a Ruling Concerning the Testimony of a Witness (27 July 1999) at para 32 (ICTY, Trial Chamber), online: ICTY <>.

26 Guantanamo, supra note 1 at para 4(b). Judge Pohl in fact referred, somewhat anachronistically, to “international common law” rather than customary international law. For a view on what “international common law” might mean, as distinct from customary international law, see Andrew T Guzman & Timothy L Meyer, “International Common Law: The Soft Law of International Tribunals” (2008) 9 Chicago J Intl L 515, online: <>.

27 Reparations, supra note 19.

28 United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, Rules of Procedure and Evidence, UN Doc MICT/1 (8 June 2012).

29 See, eg, Prosecutor v Tharcisse Muvunyi, ICTR-2000-55A-T, Judgment (11 February 2010) (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)), online: ICTR <>.

30 International Criminal Court, Rules of Procedure and Evidence, ICC-ASP/1/3 (Part II-A) (9 September 2002), Rule 73.

31 Guantanamo, supra note 1 at para 3(j).

32 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1997, 2187 UNTS 3 [Rome Statute].

33 Stéphane Jeannet, “Testimony of ICRC Delegates before the International Criminal Court” (2000) 84:840 Intl Rev Red Cross 993, online: <>.

34 FMIOA, supra note 16, s 5(1)(i), activated by International Criminal Court Privileges and Immunities Order, SOR/2004-156, C Gaz II (2004) at 1018. See Rome Statute, supra note 32, art 48(4): “Counsel, experts, witnesses or any other person required to be present at the seat of the Court shall be accorded such treatment as is necessary for the proper functioning of the Court, in accordance with the agreement on the privileges and immunities of the Court.”

35 See note 13 in this article.

36 Dieter Fleck & Stuart Addy, The Handbook of the Law of Visiting Forces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) at 477.

37 International Organizations Immunities Act, 22 USC § 288 (1945) [IOIA]. See Fleck & Addy, supra note 36 at 477. Note that the IOIA only provides immunities to staff and documents in the possession of the ICRC. See Guantanamo, supra note 1 at para 3(e) (defence request for ICRC reports already handed over to the US government).

38 This “core activities” caveat is mentioned because, as discussed below, the situation in respect of private law matters (and employment, in particular) may be unclear in some jurisdictions. See Thore Neumann & Anne Peters in August Reinisch, ed, Privileges and Immunities of International Organizations in Domestic Courts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) at 264–65. In Canada, however, it appears that immunities remain firmly in place even in cases of employment disputes. See Amaratunga, supra note 10. For a reaffirmation of strict adherence to the inviolability of the records of international organizations — even in the absence of demonstrated functional necessity — see also World Bank Group v Wallace, 2016 SCC 15 [Wallace].

39 Claire L’Heureux-Dubé & Frank Iacobucci, “Afghan Detainee Document Review: Report by the Panel of Arbiters on Its Work and Methodology for Determining What Redacted Information Can Be Disclosed” (15 April 2011) at 15ff, online: <>.

40 Ibid at para 44.

41 Ibid at para 46.

42 Ibid at para 47.

43 Niels Blokker, “International Organizations: The Untouchables?” (2013) 10:2 Intl Org L Rev 259.

44 Ibid at 260.

45 Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to access information about these mechanisms, let alone assess their effectiveness. See Neumann & Peters, supra note 38. The present authors urge greater transparency here.

46 See generally Amaratunga, supra note 10. On the waiver of immunities, see Wallace, supra note 38.

47 R v Hape, 2007 SCC 26 at para 39, [2007] SCR 292 (LeBel J).

48 Ibid at para 53.

49 Ibid.

50 For an argument that Hape itself is unclear, see John H Currie, “Weaving a Tangled Web: Hape and the Obfuscation of Canadian Reception Law” (2007) 45 Can YB Intl Law 55 at 59–71.

51 Kazemi Estate v Islamic Republic of Iran, 2014 SCC 62 at para 61, [2014] 3 SCR 176.

52 See generally Descôteaux v Mierzwinski, [1982] 1 SCR 860, 141 DLR (3d) 590 [Descôteaux, cited to SCR].

53 R v Gruenke, [1991] 3 SCR 263 at 296, [1991] SCJ No 80 (QL) (L’Heureux-Dubé J) [Gruenke, cited to SCR].

54 A (LL) v B (A), [1995] 4 SCR 536 at 559, [1995] SCJ No 102 (QL) (L’Heureux-Dubé J).

55 Stewart v Canadian Broadcasting Corp, [1997] OJ No 2271 (QL) at para 91, 1997 CanLII 12318 (Sup Ct).

56 Examples include litigation privilege, settlement privilege, spousal privilege, joint client privilege, common interest privilege, and the implied undertaking rule.

57 Gruenke, supra note 53 at 286.

58 Although the Court in McClure, supra note 24 at para 28, had included spousal privilege among the “class” privileges, the spousal privilege is far from absolute. See, eg, Canada Evidence Act, RSC 1985, c C-5, s 4 (enumerated exceptions to this privilege); Bill C-32, An Act to Enact the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights and to Amend Certain Acts, 2nd Sess, 41st Parliament, 2013 (assented to 23 April 2015), SC 2015, c 13 (amending the Canada Evidence Act to make spouses compellable witnesses).

59 Canada v Solosky, [1980] 1 SCR 821 [Solosky].

60 Ibid at 833.

61 Ibid at 835: “[I]f a client seeks guidance from a lawyer in order to facilitate the commission of a crime or fraud, the communication will not be privileged and it is immaterial whether the lawyer is an unwitting dupe or knowing participant.”

62 Ibid at 840.

63 Ibid.

64 Descôteaux, supra note 52.

65 Ibid at 870.

66 Ibid at 875.

67 McClure, supra note 24.

68 Ibid at para 38.

69 Ibid at para 41.

70 Ibid at para 40; see also para 4: “Solicitor-client privilege is not absolute so, in rare circumstances, it will be subordinated to an individual’s right to make full answer and defence.”

71 Ibid at para 46.

72 Ibid at paras 28, 31 [emphasis added].

73 Ibid at para 45.

74 R v Basi, 2009 SCC 52 at para 36, [2009] SCJ No 52 (QL).

75 R v Leipert, [1997] 1 SCR 281 at para 10, [1997] SCJ No 14 (QL) [Leipert, cited to SCR]; R v Barros, 2011 SCC 51 at para 1, [2011] 3 SCR 386 [Barros].

76 Barros, supra note 75 at para 32.

77 David Layton, “Confidential Informer Privilege” at 5, online: <>.

78 Leipert, supra note 75 at para 12; Barros, supra note 75 at para 1 (note that Wigmore’s four-part test is described later in this article).

79 Leipert, supra note 75 at para 20; Barros, supra note 75 at para 28.

80 Layton, supra note 77 at 6–7.

81 AM v Ryan, [1997] 1 SCR 157 at para 20, [1997] SCJ No 13 (QL) [Ryan].

82 Ibid at para 21.

83 Gruenke, supra note 53 at 288–89.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid at 284.

86 Ibid at 290 [emphasis added].

87 Giladi & Ratner, supra note 10.

88 R v National Post, 2010 SCC 16, [2010] 1 SCR 477 [National Post].

89 Ibid at para 3.

90 Ibid. It is worth mentioning that Binnie J (for the majority) seemed to place some emphasis on the fact that “this is not the usual case of journalists seeking to avoid testifying about their secret sources. This is a physical evidence case” [emphasis added]. Later in his judgment, Binnie J. repeats: “[I]t is important to remind ourselves that there is a significant difference between testimonial immunity against compelled disclosure of secret sources and the suppression by the media of relevant physical evidence” [emphasis added]. This distinction is relevant because it underscores the fact that privilege cannot be asserted over physical objects that may ultimately prove to be evidence of a criminal offence. See, eg, R v Murray (2000), 48 OR (3d) 544, 144 CCC 3d 289 (Sup Ct). However, the distinction also leads one to ponder whether the Court’s decision might have been different has it been faced with a straightforward question of journalist-confidential source privilege.

91 National Post, supra note 88 at para 42.

92 Ibid at para 51.

93 Ibid at para 59.

94 Ibid at para 64.

95 Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Harkat, 2014 SCC 37, [2014] 2 SCR 33 [Harkat].

96 Ibid at para 85.

97 Ibid at para 87.

98 To establish a case-by-case privilege, the claimant has to overcome a burden of persuasion on the facts that “[t]he injury that would inure to the [relationship] by the disclosure of the communications [would] be greater than the benefit thereby gained for the correct disposal of the litigation.” See National Post, supra note 88 at para 116 (Abella J, dissenting on another point).

99 “Confidential Approach,” supra note 21 at 1136.

100 ICRC Resource Centre, “The ICRC’s Mission Statement” (19 June 2008), online: International Committee of the Red Cross <>.

101 “Confidential Approach,” supra note 21 at 1136.

102 National Post, supra note 88 at para 64.

103 Ibid at para 58.

104 Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act, SC 2000, c 24; Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 269.1.

105 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11, s 7.

106 FMIOA, supra note 16.

107 African Development Bank Privileges and Immunities Order, 1984, SOR/84-360; North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission Privileges and Immunities Order, 1994, SOR/94-562; G20 Summit Privileges and Immunities Order, 2010, SOR/2010-62.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Yearbook of International Law/Annuaire canadien de droit international
  • ISSN: 0069-0058
  • EISSN: 1925-0169
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-yearbook-of-international-law-annuaire-canadien-de-droit-international
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 7
Total number of PDF views: 55 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 237 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.