Ukraine war: is history repeating itself for the ICRC?

The ICRC with the Ukrainian Red Cross helps evacuate civilians out of Sumy, Ukraine, 2022. (Credit: ICRC/Volodymyrovych, Malyuk Serhiy)

At a time when prisoners of war are used as bargaining chips and the Geneva conventions are constantly trampled on, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could be exploited for geopolitical interests in an attempt to exclude it from any international investigation efforts, former ICRC delegate Thierry Germond writes.

After being accused by the eastern bloc of using biological weapons during the Korean war, the United States called for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry, whose members would be appointed by the ICRC – a neutral, impartial and independent organisation. The Soviet Union, unable to oppose the move which it probably did not expect, decided to sabotage it by discrediting the ICRC. The World Peace Council (WPC), run by Moscow and chaired by Frédéric Joliot-Curie, was asked to put together a file against the ICRC to ensure its exclusion from the process.

At Joliot-Curie's request, professor André Bonnard, a Swiss peace activist and WPC member, was tasked with gathering evidence of the conflicts of interests of ICRC members, stemming from their links to the Swiss economy, to prove that it was not qualified to appoint a neutral and independent commission.

In 1952, he was about to take off from Zurich for East Berlin, where the WPC was holding a meeting, when Professor Bonnard was arrested, carrying individual notes on each member of the ICRC. A resounding trial in Lausanne before the Federal Criminal Court followed, ending with a mere slap on the wrist and the humiliation of the federal police officers, who had thought it would be their hour of glory. Bonnard's notes were based on the annual reports of the companies headed by ICRC members and the biographical notes published by the ICRC itself.

A quasi-monopoly of information

For over five months, we have seen the issue of prisoners of war in Ukraine shockingly exploited, and their fate as well as the suffering and distress of their families manipulated. For all the parties involved in this international conflict, prisoners of war and even those killed in action are bargaining chips.

The states that have signed the Geneva conventions have remained silent until now, despite their obligation to “respect and ensure respect” of these conventions. Instead of decrying the disregard of the Geneva conventions and constant violations of international humanitarian law by both Russia and Ukraine over the past five months, the Western political elite has settled for mobilising public opinion over the war crimes said to be committed by Russia – the impressive number of which is claimed to be an established truth, whereas to date no serious independent investigation has led to an indictment. The quasi-monopoly of information on this issue is held by the recently ousted Ukrainian prosecutor general – who, like President Zelensky’s government, considers every Russian combatant to automatically be a war criminal!

It was not until five months after the beginning of the conflict, with the announcement of the attack on Olenivka’s prison on 29 July, 2022 – the circumstances and number of prisoner victims of which remain unknown –, that Western governments and the international press began to take an interest in the fate of prisoners of war in the context of the conflict, for which both sides have demonstrated to bare heavy responsibility, through their disregard for the Geneva Conventions, that must not be hidden by propaganda.

A political and moral imperative

If soliciting the ICRC to investigate, as Ukraine has done, seems justified, it is important that Russia join this request and that the ICRC or any other organisation deemed independent and impartial appoints the members of an international commission of inquiry. As Russia's responsibility has already been publicly affirmed by certain Western leaders, notably by the head of European diplomacy, it is doubtful that such a commission will be set up soon.

One can only recall the Korean War and wonder whether Ukraine and its allies, or Russia, have the greatest interest in undermining the move. Putting the ICRC forward might be one way to do it! Recent backlash against the ICRC on social media seems to be a harbinger of such sabotage.

Until a credible and serious agreement is reached, there is a political and moral imperative that both Ukraine and Russia must meet immediately. Both have an obligation to respect the Geneva conventions and therefore must immediately give access to all prisoners of war to ICRC delegates. They must make a public commitment to do so and the signatory states of the Geneva Conventions must speak out clearly on this issue.


This article was originally published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions.