The deadly bombing of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq in October again underlined the dangers humanitarian organizations face of being seen as allied with one side or another in a conflict. The image problem persists even as the largest humanitarian organizations have long since evolved from their origins as national groups into worldwide alliances of charities that freely share resources across political borders.
Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When people think of humanitarian organizations, most still identify groups by their country or region of origin. Thus, people around the world regard Red Cross societies as Western organizations. Similarly, they view Red Crescent societies as part of the Muslim world.
Increasingly, however, such straightforward associations are out of date. In recent decades, the largest humanitarian organizations have steadily evolved from their origins as national groups into worldwide alliances of charities that can supplement each other's resources.
When a natural disaster occurs today, the lead organizations aiding the victims may still be those indigenous to the country. But additional funding for the local group may be raised by partners in dozens of other countries. When the disaster is too large for the personnel of the indigenous groups to cope with alone, their international partners may also send staff and equipment to help.
That model has, to a large extent, been pioneered by what is today the world's largest humanitarian organization -- the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The federation is meeting this week and next at its Geneva headquarters to, among other things, welcome the Kazakh Red Crescent Society, the Micronesian Red Cross Society, and the Cocoa Islands Red Cross Society into its fold.
The new additions will raise the federation's total number of countries in which there are participating societies to 181.
Denis MacLean, a spokesman for Red Cross Red Crescent, says the alliance was founded originally in 1919 as an effort to cope with the aftermath of World War One in Europe.
"It was started in 1919 on the initiative of the American Red Cross which, seeing the enormous problems that were confronting the population of Europe after the First World War, decided that it would be a good idea to federate the then existing national Red Cross societies to work together to combat epidemics," MacLean says.
He says the federation of Red Cross societies -- whose red-cross symbol is drawn from the Swiss flag -- soon made common cause with the Red Crescent societies of the Middle East, whose red-crescent symbol was used by the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean war. All participating societies agreed to aid each other in humanitarian efforts without respect to national, ideological, or religious differences.
MacLean says the idea of a network of national societies enables the raising of large amounts of money internationally to rapidly respond to crises. In recent years, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world have pooled resources to deal with famine in southern Africa and an earthquake in northwestern India. Most recently, the federation has issued a fund-raising appeal for Iraq.
But even while humanitarian organizations have increasingly moved from being national to international in character, they continue to run the risk of being identified with one side or another in conflicts.
A number of international organizations operating in Iraq have been targeted by guerrilla groups fighting the United States, most notably the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN. The headquarters of the ICRC was one of the targets of four bombings in Baghdad on 27 October that killed at least 35 people. An attack in August on the UN headquarters killed 22 people. The attacks have caused most international humanitarian groups to temporarily pull their foreign staff from the capital and much of the country.
However, while the attacks have driven most foreign aid workers out, Iraq's indigenous Red Crescent Society has been able to maintain its functions. Today, its more than 3,000 local volunteers working in all 18 governorates make up the largest humanitarian network in the country.
Gerardo Pontrandolfi is head of sector cooperation for the Middle East and North Africa regions at the ICRC in Geneva. He says the ability of a national society to continue functioning when foreign partners are attacked illustrates one of the strengths of worldwide humanitarian alliances.
"What we are facing right now [in Iraq] is the perception of being part of the coalition forces, which of course is not the case. We are a neutral and independent movement. But it is not only important what we do, and that we do it in an independent and neutral way, but also how we are perceived. And therefore -- and here we come to the strength of the movement -- the Iraqi Red Crescent is operational in the country and continues to carry out humanitarian operations right now in Iraq," Pontrandolfi says.
It remains unclear what motivated the attacks on humanitarian organizations in Iraq. One possibility is that the attacks were aimed at driving out foreign organizations perceived by anti-U.S. fighters as being allied with Washington. Another is that the attacks are more broadly aimed at shutting down humanitarian assistance programs of any kind in Iraq in the hope that worsened social conditions will fuel resentment of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
International organizations are currently assessing the security conditions in Iraq prior to deciding if and when they might make a full return of their foreign staffs to the country.