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An institution standing the test of time? A review of 150 years of the history of the International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Daniel Palmieri


This article seeks to explain how the ICRC – the oldest international humanitarian organization still in activity – has managed to pass through 150 years of existence. By analysing some key moments in ICRC history and by examining both its inner workings and their interaction with the context within which the organization has functioned over time, this article finds two characteristics that may help explain the ICRC's continuity: its unique specificity and its innovative capacity.



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1 ICRC Archives A PV, Minutes, Commission spéciale de la Société [d'utilité publique] en faveur des militaires blessés durant les guerres [Special Commission of the Society (of Public Welfare) in Favour of Soldiers Wounded During the Wars], 17 February 1863.

2 Desfrane, Jean, Histoire des associations françaises, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2004.

3 This should, however, be put in perspective because the ICRC only intended to act in relation to European wars; ICRC Archives A PV, Minutes, Commission spéciale de la Société…,17 February 1863.

4 The ICRC's mono-nationality was regularly criticized during the ICRC's first century. See François Bugnion, ‘La composition du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge’, in Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge [hereafter, RICR], No. 814, July–August 1995, pp. 473–493; in English see, ‘The Composition of the International Committee of the Red Cross’, in International Review of the Red Cross [hereafter, IRRC], No. 307, August 1995, pp. 427–446.

5 The Swiss Civil Code came into effect on 1 January 1912.

6 Diego Fiscalini, Des élites au service d'une cause humanitaire: le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, mémoire de licence, Faculté des Lettres, Département d'Histoire, Université de Genève, two volumes, April 1985.

7 Including on the political level. See Palmieri, Daniel, ‘Post Tenebras Lux. New Perspectives on the Foundation of the Red Cross’, in Eckart, Wolfgang U. and Osten, Philipp (eds), Schlachtschrecken, Konventionen. Das Rote Kreuz und die Erfindung der Menschlichkeit im Kriege, Freiburg, 2011, pp. 1726.

8 Appia had experience in caring for the war wounded. See Boppe, Roger, L'homme et la guerre. Le Docteur Louis Appia et les débuts de la Croix-Rouge, Muhlethaler, Geneva, 1959, pp. 30 ff.

9 In 1847, General Dufour commanded federal troops during the last civil war in Switzerland, the Sonderbund War.

10 Dufour was personally acquainted with the emperor Napoléon III.

11 Until this war broke out, the ICRC was in favour of opening up its membership to the members of the National Societies and had even taken the first steps in this direction. See François Bugnion, above note 4, pp. 474–476. The ICRC did not think that this change would put its own existence into question. Following the Franco-Prussian war, with its intensification of nationalism that did not leave the Red Cross societies untouched, the ICRC radically changed its position, henceforth defending its specifically Swiss character.

12 Holmes, Richard (ed.), Atlas historique de la Guerre. Les armes et les batailles qui ont changé le cours de l'histoire, France Loisirs, Paris, 1991, pp. 108110; in English see, The World Atlas of Warfare: Military Innovations that Changed the Course of History, Mitchell Beazley, New York, 1988.

13 Note, however, that government motivations for participating in these meetings were not limited to ‘humanitarian’ aims; international politics also played a role. Palmieri, Daniel, ‘De la persuasion à l'autopersuasion : le CICR et le droit humanitaire’, in Revue Suisse d'Histoire, Vol. 61, No. 1, 2011, p. 58.

14 This ‘bottom-up’ phenomenon would later be found in the international juridical protection of intellectual property. See the work of Blaise Wilfert.

15 Including in its finances because the ICRC was mostly self-financed. See Golay, Jean-François, Le financement de l'aide humanitaire : l'exemple du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, Lang, Berne, 1990, p. 8.

16 In 1884, in 1887, and in 1897.

17 ICRC ARCHIVES, A PV, Minutes of the Committee, 22 June 1874 and 9 September 1874.

18 Contrary to the declarations found in institutional historiography, the mission sent during the Schleswig War of 1864 was not the work of the ICRC but of the Geneva section of the Red Cross. See ICRC ARCHIVES, A PV, Minutes of the meeting of the Geneva section, 17 March 1864.

19 This concerned aiding refugees who had fled Herzegovina and found asylum in Montenegro. See ICRC ARCHIVES, A AF, 21-12, Montenegro and Herzegovina, 1875–76.

20 In 1912, the ICRC delegated Dr de Marval to the Balkan theatre of the First Balkan War, but this was essentially an evaluation mission of the belligerents' medical system. See ICRC ARCHIVES, A AF, 25-8, Report by Marval.

21 ICRC Archives A PV, AIPG, Minutes, 30 September 1914. During this period, the ICRC went from a dozen people to 120.

22 ICRC Archives B CR 92/1, 1-00, ICRC Statutes, 15 November 1915.

23 ICRC Archives C G1 A 01.

24 Except for questions about the Committee's personnel (resignations and recruitment), which remained under the Committee's sole authority and were noted in specific minutes.

25 Some 40 ICRC delegates made 524 prison camp visits, mostly in Europe, but also in Asia and North Africa, from January 1915 to December 1919.

26 Although often thought of as an innovation introduced in the early 1990s, the tradition of non-Swiss delegates in fact goes back to the origins of the ICRC (see Troyon, Brigitte and Palmieri, Daniel, ‘The ICRC delegate: an exceptional player?’, in IRRC, No. 865, March 2007, pp. 102105). It seems that it was under the presidency of Max Huber and in relation to the ever closer ties between the Helvetic Confederation and the ICRC that the ICRC decided to have only Swiss expatriate personnel, a policy that was fully justified during the Cold War and that came to an end with it.

27 For example, in the Moscow delegation that lasted during the interwar period. When the ICRC decided to close the delegation in 1938, its staff included fifteen local employees.

28 From the Liste des personnes ayant travaillé à l'Agence internationale des prisonniers de guerre (août 1914–décembre 1918) [List of persons who worked for the International Prisoner-of-War Agency, August 1914–December 1918], in L'Agence internationale des prisonniers de guerre, Genève 1914–1918, ICRC, Geneva, 1919, pp. 113 ff.

29 ICRC Archives A PV, AIPG, Minutes, 11 June 1918.

30 ICRC Archives A PV, Minutes, Committee, 29 June 1918.

31 A list of the principal delegates of the institution up to the mid-1920s contains only two women's names out of a total of 108, that is, some 2 per cent of the total. See L'expérience du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge en matière de secours internationaux, ICRC, Geneva, 1925, pp. 52 ff. Previously, the very few women who were present in ICRC delegations were limited to secretarial work (see, for example, the list of expatriate personnel in the Bulletin international des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge, tome LII, No. 221, 15 January 1921, pp. 47–48).

32 ICRC Archives A PV, Minutes, Committee, 17 March 1863.

33 See l'Appel contre l'emploi des gaz vénéneux [Appeal Against the Use of Poison Gas] in Bulletin international de la Croix-Rouge, Vol. 49, No. 194, April 1918, pp. 185–192.

34 Categories that the ICRC has rediscovered only in recent years when launching specific campaigns on some of them.

35 The civil section of the AIPG was founded in September 1914 (ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, AIPG, 16 September 1914), and the first visits to prisoner of war camps took place in January 1915. More than to the ICRC, the civil section is indebted to the fighting spirit of its founder Dr Frédéric Ferrière who had to ‘fight’ against the opposition of other members of the Committee to keep it alive. See Armanios, Rachad, Le Dr Frédéric Ferrière. Les années de formation d'un médecin et d'un philanthrope, Mémoire de licence en histoire générale, Université de Genève, 2003, pp. 166 ff.

36 Paul Grossrieder, ‘La mononationalité suisse du CICR : une étrangeté organisationnelle…’ [the Swiss mono-nationality of the ICRC: an organizational eccentricity], 14 February 2010, available at: (last visited 11 July 2012).

37 Herrmann, Irène, ‘Décrypter la concurrence humanitaire : le conflit entre Croix-Rouge(s) après 1918’, in Relations internationales, No. 151, Autumn 2012, pp. 91102.

38 J.-F. Golay, above note 15, p. 49.

39 Max Huber became President of the ICRC in 1928, following the death of Gustave Ador.

40 Aubert, Cécile, Les premiers pas du CICR en Amérique latine. La guerre du Chaco, mémoire de licence, Département d'histoire générale de la Faculté des lettres, Université de Genève, 2001; Palmieri, Daniel, ‘Mission humanitaire ou voyage d'étude? Le CICR et la guerre du Chaco’, in Richard, Nicolas, Capdevilla, Luc and Boidin, Capucine (eds), Les guerres du Paraguay aux XIXe et XXe siècles, CoLibris, Paris, 2007, pp. 4961.

41 The Red Cross installations were deliberately bombed by Italian planes in full view of the ICRC, which also had proof of the use of poisonous gas (yperite) by the Italian troops. Poisonous gas had been forbidden by the Protocol of Geneva of 1925, ratified by Italy in 1928. Baudendistel, Rainer, ‘La force contre le droit: le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge et la guerre chimique dans le conflit italo-éthiopien, 1935–1936’, in RICR, No. 829, March 1998, pp. 85110; in English see, ‘Force versus law: The International Committee of the Red Cross and chemical warfare in the Italo-Ethiopian war 1935–1936’, in IRRC, No. 322, March 1998.

42 B. Troyon and D. Palmieri, above note 26, p. 99; Palmieri, Daniel, ‘Une neutralité sous influence? Le CICR, Franco et les victimes’, in Revue suisse d'Histoire, Vol. 59, No. 3, 2009, pp. 279297.

43 Rapport du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge sur son activité pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale (1er septembre 1939–30 juin 1947), three vols., Geneva, May 1948; in English, see, Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World War, three vols. and an annex, ICRC, Geneva, 1948.

44 Ibid., Rapport, Vol. I, p. 58.

45 In Switzerland, between 1940 and 1947, the staff (ibid., Rapport, Vol. I, p. 58) worked in 33 auxiliary sections of the Agence centrale des prisonniers de guerre [Central Prisoners of War Agency] that were spread throughout the country. Other than the delegates themselves, the number of persons – Swiss or foreigners – who worked in ICRC delegations abroad is unknown.

46 Rapport, above note 43, Vol. I, p. 99.

47 The ICRC estimates the value of aid it distributed at more than 3,000 million current Swiss francs.

48 Altogether there were over 35 million files, that is, some seven times more than in 1914–1918. See Rapport, above note 43, Vol. II, p. 340.

49 These were Hollerith machines, which used perforated cards, and were made available by International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). See Katz, Monique, ‘Quand des machines travaillaient pour la Croix-Rouge?’, in RICR, No. 453, September 1956, pp. 507511. On IBM perforated or punch cards, see (last visited 12 July 2012).

50 Starting in 1947, the number of commissions declined rapidly, going from nine to six at the start of the 1950s and then to four for the rest of this period, indicating that the Committee and the Presidential Council were taking control of current affairs.

51 However, the ICRC did not wait until the Second World War to launch communications concerning its activities. The publication, starting in 1869, of the Bulletin des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge (ancestor of the RICR) illustrates this.

52 The first ICRC films, however, date from 1921. See Natale, Enrico, ‘Quand l'humanitaire commençait à faire son cinéma : les films du CICR des années 1920’, in RICR, Vol. 86, No. 854, June 2004, pp. 415437; for English abstract, see ‘Humanitarian organizations enter the world of cinema: ICRC films in the 1920s’, in the same issue.

53 Volume I of the Rapport gives an incomplete list of ICRC representatives who died while on mission, including those who died of natural or accidental causes. Note that for the ICRC, many natural deaths were due to ‘the overwhelming work load’ of the delegates. See Rapport, above note 43, Vol. I, pp. 64–65.

54 On the Vischer case, see Ernst Braches, Bandjermasin Case. The Swiss authorities and the Execution of Dr. C.M. Vischer and B. Vischer-Mylius in Borneo, 20 December 1943, available at: (last visited 13 July 2012).

55 RICR, No. 330, June 1946, p. 524.

56 Herrmann, Irène and Palmieri, Daniel, ‘Humanitaire et massacres : L'exemple du CICR (1904–1994)’, in Semelin, Jacques, Andrieu, Claire, and Gensburger, Sarah (eds), La résistance aux génocides. De la pluralité des actes de sauvetage, Les Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 2008, pp. 237245.

57 Parallel to his activities as President of the ICRC, Gustave Moynier was also Consul General of the Congo Free State. The ICRC headquarters and the consulate shared the same premises. On the Leopoldian Congo, see Hochschild, Adam, Les fantômes du Roi Léopold : La terreur coloniale dans l’État du Congo, 1884–1908, Tallandier, Paris, 2007.

58 While the European powers confronted each other over the question of colonialism, it was over the limits of the colonial spheres of influence (as was illustrated by the famous incidents of Fachoda and Agadir), rather than over the methods employed by colonization.

59 ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, AIPG, 27 October 1919.

60 Many ICRC delegates were accused of spying for Germany or dealing in looted goods. See Division de presse du CICR, ‘L'action du CICR pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale’, in RICR, No. 821, September–October 1996, pp. 606611; this article was completed in April 1997 by François Bugnion in the light of further research done by the ICRC in its archives and in the federal Swiss archives, available at: (last visited 12 July 2012).

61 These accusations were advanced by the Yugoslav Red Cross, but were picked up by other Communist bloc states. See Rey-Schyrr, Catherine, Histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge (1945–1955), De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu (1945–1955), Georg, Geneva, 2007, p. 71.

62 Steinacher, Gerald, Nazis on the Run. How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011. For a critique of this thesis, see Herrmann, Irène and Palmieri, Daniel, ‘“Refugees on the Run”: The ICRC travel documents after the Second World War’, in Contemporanea, rivista di storia dell'800 e del'900, 1, 2013, in press.

63 Rapport, above note 43, Vol. I, pp. 558–566.

64 L'activité du CICR en faveur des civils détenus dans les camps de concentration en Allemagne (1939–1945), Geneva, 1946; in English see Documents relating to the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross for the benefit of civilian detainees in German concentration camps between 1939 and 1945, ICRC, Geneva, 1975, 125 pp.

65 Jean-Claude Favez's work (Une mission impossible ? Le CICR, les déportations et les camps de concentration nazis, Nadir Payot, Lausanne, 1988; in English see, The Red Cross and the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999) was the first scientific study of this subject. Concerning the white paper, Fabrice Cahen spoke of an ‘intention of internal orientation with the objective of welding the entire staff around an official defensive line’, in Fabrice Cahen, Le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge et la Shoah. Une controverse entre histoire et mémoire, mémoire de maîtrise d'histoire, Université Versailles, Saint-Quentin, 1999, p. 45.

66 Herrmann, Irène and Palmieri, Daniel, ‘Two crosses for the same aim? Switzerland and Sweden charitable activities during World War II’, in Paulmann, Johannes (ed.), The Dilemmas of International Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century, in press.

67 This is the opinion of Catherine Rey-Schyrr in her analysis of the hostile attitude of Communist countries towards the ICRC. C. Rey-Schyrr, above note 61, p. 52.

68 Ibid., p. 38.

69 Freymond, Jacques (ed.), Le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, Georg, Geneva, 1984, p. 66; table p. 71.

70 Ibid., p. 85, except for the very great crises such as Palestine (1948) or Hungary (1956).

71 Ibid., p. 134.

72 Rapport, above note 43, Vol. I, p. 58; J. Freymond, Le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, above note 69, p. 139.

73 J. Freymond, Le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, ibid., p. 134.

74 ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, Committee, 4 December 1944.

75 ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, Committee, 24 February 1945.

76 ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, closed session of the Committee, 29 January 1947.

77 Paul Ruegger, the first Catholic president of the ICRC, was elected in February 1948, apparently as a result of an ad hoc procedure. He took office in July 1948.

78 Founded in March 1943, this Bureau took on the functions that had previously been those of the Central Commission which, in November 1940, became the Coordination Commission. The Bureau was the general manager of all ICRC activities and was in charge of all its various committees. This Bureau should not be confused with the previously mentioned Bureau.

79 The fact that the Directorate did not edit its own specific minutes, as did other ICRC autonomous bodies, illustrated this fact (Bureau, Committee, etc.).

80 The first regional delegations were opened in Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Venezuela.

81 Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 1967, p. 5, emphasis added. (All page references to the Annual Report are to the French editions.)

82 In September 1938, during the Munich crisis and prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the ICRC set up a Commission des œuvres de guerre in charge of preparing the ICRC's activities in case of a ‘European cataclysm’ (ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, Committee, emergency session 15 September 1938), a commission that continued its work until September 1939. However, the innovation in the preparation of the ICRC action in the Six Day War was to deploy personnel in the field where the confrontation would take place. Delegates were already in position in the capitals of the future belligerents by the end of May 1967.

83 Members of the GMI were recruited in Switzerland from the universities, the army, the administration, etc. They were highly skilled, especially in the medical field as well as in communications, and were available for missions of two consecutive months.

84 ICRC Archives, A PV, closed session of the Committee, 2 July 1964.

85 On the GMI, see J. Freymond, above note 69, p. 137; table p. 140.

86 Ibid., p. 137.

87 Calculations derived from J. Freymond, above note 69, table p. 140.

88 Ibid., p. 61, note 2.

89 Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 1970, p. 133.

90 J. Freymond, above note 69, p. 63.

91 Ibid., p. 68.

92 Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 1974, p. 96.

93 J. Freymond, above note 69, p. 86.

94 Ibid., p. 161.

95 Hentsch, Thierry, Face au blocus. La Croix-Rouge internationale dans le Nigeria en guerre (1967–1970), Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales, Geneva, 1973, p. 245.

96 A Press and Information Division directly attached to the Presidency was established. The importance of ‘communication’ and the uses made of it during the Biafran conflict, as well as the important role played by the media and its attitude towards the ICRC, certainly explain the creation of this new division.

97 J. Freymond, above note 69, p. 128.

98 Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 1970, pp. 132–134.

99 Expression used by Delorenzi, Simone in Face aux impasses de l'action humanitaire internationale. La politique du CICR depuis la fin de la guerre froide, ICRC, Geneva, 1997.

100 Ibid., p. 30.

101 Veuthey, Michel, Guérilla et droit humanitaire, ICRC, Geneva, 1983 (1st edition, 1976), introduction (1976), p. xvi.

102 This was the hypothesis advanced by Simone Delorenzi along with the purely historical aspects of the question. Based on the results obtained, the ICRC would be able to decide what stance to take in case it was confronted with a similar situation. S. Delorenzi, above note 99, p. 24.

103 See the ICRC postface to the first edition of the work of Jean-Claude Favez, above note 65.

104 In 2011, the Committee decided against a new declassification of ICRC documents in spite of the rules governing access to the archives that this same Committee had adopted in 1996. The decision to open an additional part of its archives was postponed to a later date.

105 Simone Delorenzi even wrote of a ‘rupture’ with his predecessors. See S. Delorenzi, above note 99, p. 31.

106 Alexander Hay, President of the ICRC between 1976 and 1987.

107 Prior to May 1991 the Executive Council, which was the successor of the Bureau and the Presidential Council, was – like its predecessors – composed only of members of the Committee. The new system lasted until 1998 at which point an autonomous Directorate was created.

108 The ICRC representatives in the field (delegations, regional delegations, and missions) went from around fifty in 1991 to more than eighty twenty years later, that is, an increase of nearly 60 per cent. This increase, however, should be put in perspective in view of the creation of new states starting in 1990, particularly the ruins of Yugoslavia and the former Soviet empire.

109 This estimation, which unfortunately is incomplete, is based on internal documents.

110 S. Delorenzi, above note 99, p. 46.

111 Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 1991, p. 97.

112 This calculation based on the annual ICRC reports from 1970 to 1979.

113 The usual definition of an enterprise is: ‘The enterprise is a term that refers to a combination of human, material, intangible (services) and financial resources, combined in an organized manner to achieve for-profit or non-profit aims, and most often involves the supply of goods or services to a more or less open group of customers or users in a more or less competitive environment.’ Ignoring the ‘for-profit’ character of the enterprise and replacing the terms ‘clients’ and ‘users’ by ‘beneficiaries of humanitarian action’, this definition covers the mandate of the ICRC as it is today, including the idea of competition with other humanitarian organizations. See (last visited 16 August 2012); for the English, see

114 Chosen at random from the Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 2011, pp. 186–191.

115 ‘Optimize the ICRC's performance’, Annual Report, ICRC, Geneva, 2011, p. 51.

117 See Michalet, Charles-Albert, Le capitalisme mondial, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1998.

118 The locally hired staff are not taken into account here.

119 B. Troyon and D. Palmieri, above note 26, p. 110.

120 Dr Louis Appia, Rapport sur ma mission au Schleswig [Report on my mission to Schleswig], 1864, quoted by Durand, André, Histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, De Sarajevo à Hiroshima, ICRC, Geneva, 1978, p. 160; for the English version see, History of the International Committee of the Red Cross, From Sarajevo to Hiroshima, ICRC, Geneva, 1984.

121 Durand, André, ‘Gustave Moynier et les sociétés de la paix’, in RICR, No. 821, September–October 1996, p. 588.

122 For the example of Henri Arrault, see Harouel, Véronique, Genève-Paris, 1863–1918. Le droit humanitaire en construction, Société Henry Dunant/CICR/Croix-Rouge Française, Geneva, 2003, pp. 105110.

123 Ibid., pp. 80 ff., Véronique Harouel even writes, concerning this event, of a ‘conference held under a “French protectorate”’.

124 Officially the first ICRC president was General Dufour (ICRC Archives, A PV, Minutes, Commission spéciale de la Société, 17 February 1863), but he only held office very briefly and his role was marginal.

125 Stauffer, Paul, Sechs furchtbare Jahr: Auf den Spuren Carl J. Burckhardts durch den Zweiten Weltkrieg, NZZ Verl., Zurich, 1998.

126 The confidential way in which the ICRC acts could also, at least since the 1930's, explain the institution's permanency. Ironically, this confidentiality is what has been the most criticized by the outside world.

127 D. Fiscalini, above note 6.

128 However, this does not mean that the ICRC has not experienced internal dissensions that were often settled in a summary fashion (see the resignations of Rappard or of Sydney Brown, the ICRC General Secretary).

129 Before the 1980s, the ICRC was a relatively small organization. While its numbers increased significantly during important crises (world wars, Biafra, etc.) this was only for short periods.

130 This is illustrated by the delegates' use of nicknames: Doudou, Coco, etc.

131 Pillonel, Jessica, La Grande Guerre 1914–1918, un nouveau défi pour le CICR ? L'Agence internationale des prisonniers de guerre et son action en faveur des civils, mémoire de Master, Faculté des Lettres, Université de Genève, 2012.

132 I. Herrmann and D. Palmieri, Refugees on the Run, above note 62.

133 This was made even worse by the geographic distances and by the slow and limited means of communications that existed at the time.

134 The counterpart to the higher level of professionalism at the ICRC.

* This article was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC. The original version of this article is in French.


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