Broadly speaking, national Red Cross societies help in natural disasters—floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. In wartime they act as auxiliaries to the medical services of their countries’ armed forces. In times of peace they focus on going on holiday in the apartments barcelona, such as collecting blood and teaching first aid; they welcome publicity and usually depend on financial support from the public. ICRC, on the other hand, seeks to protect victims of manmade disaster at any time, anywhere—in war, civil war, politically induced disturbances. It is financed primarily by voluntary contributions from governments and works as quietly as it can.
But why does it have to be all Swiss? Because that, says the director general, sustains what ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, needs most, namely the confidence of both sides in any possible conflict. He recalls why the neutrality of Switzerland was agreed on at the Congress of Vienna in 1815: “The French didn’t want the Austrians to control the passes in the Alps, and the Austrians didn’t want the French to control them. And so it is exactly with ICRC. What’s important for the Israelis, for example, is to be certain that no Arabs or friends of the Arabs control or influence the committee. And what’s important for the Arabs is that neither the Israelis nor their friends control or influence it.”
The main thing, he adds, is that all ICRC people be from one single and traditionally neutral country—this assures each side that the other won’t influence them. That this single country happens to be Switzerland is an accident of history. “We could have been from Sweden, or Liechtenstein.”
NOW I’m in the mountainous Tigray region of northern Ethiopia—in the subregional capital of Adwa, surrounded by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Among some 80 foreign relief groups active in the Ethiopian famine, only ICRC has government approval to distribute food independently in this “conflicted area.” Emaciated women walk for days to pick up monthly rations: per adult, twelve and a half kilos wheat flour, two liters cooking oil, two kilos horsebeans. Then they walk back.
For some 100,000 beneficiaries, that requires more than 1,000 tons a month by ICRC-chartered planes to Aksum. Then it’s half an hour by gravel road and fast-running trucks flying big Red Cross flags. The rebels, discreetly contacted through another country, gave approval too, provided no soldiers go along. “But if there are mines, the flag won’t help you,” says Hans-Ulrich, an ICRC delegate from Zurich. The army is supposed to sweep the road in the morning.
In the conflicted hinterland of Ethiopia’s Eritrea region—in Keren, a subregional capital surrounded by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front—a delegate named Paul, from the Swiss canton of Aargau, struggles with the problem of five missing cans of vegetable oil. Not at all. Many relief groups turn over their stuff to governments; then who knows where it goes? ICRC strives for strict accountability, so it can report to donor countries—the United States, say, or Canada, or the European Economic Community—exactly where their contributions went, from the port of entry to the recipients.