Monday, May 23, 2005

Wall Street Journal editorial on the ICRC

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal today ran a sharp criticism of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its dealings with the US over detainees in Iraq, Guantanamo, and elsewhere, here.

I am a strong supporter of the ICRC and, in particular, at least at this point in time reject calls for the US Congress to reduce or condition funds for humanitarian relief work undertaken by the ICRC in some of the world's most desperate circumstances, as the Wall Street Journal, David Rivkin and Lee Casey, and others have done. Nevertheless, the internal culture of the ICRC is, I believe, in dangerous drift towards simply becoming another yapping Euro-NGO, competing with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for the same praise from European elites and the New York Times. The ICRC should understand that it can try to be Human Rights Watch or it can be the ICRC - it can't be both. And in any case, it will never succeed in being HRW or AI - and for the best of reasons.

It can't be those organizations because, unlike them, the ICRC has to deal with the real world of aid and relief and transportation of supplies and field hospitals and water supplies. HRW and AI limit themselves to talk and, increasingly, ideology. The ICRC will never be as clever, as nimble, as media-savvy and connected, as ... well, cool as those organizations. It will, however, save a lot of lives, over decades and indeed centuries, if it can resist the temptation to fashionableness. Problem is, alas, on current evidence, it is not resisting at all.

As the WSJ says:

As Bad as the Nazis? What the Red Cross thinks about the U.S. military.

(Monday, May 23, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT)

The International Committee of the Red Cross is granted a privileged status to inspect the conditions of prisoners of war and other detainees in return for confidentiality. But in recent years it has demonstrated a habit of selective media leaks damaging to American purposes. This is the backdrop for two recent incidents that make us think the U.S. should reconsider the ICRC's role.

The first concerns a story we heard first from a U.S. source that an ICRC representative visiting America's largest detention facility in Iraq last month had compared the U.S. to Nazi Germany. According to a Defense Department source citing internal Pentagon documents, the ICRC team leader told U.S. authorities at Camp Bucca: "You people are no better than and no different than the Nazi concentration camp guards." She was upset about not being granted immediate access shortly after a prison riot, when U.S. commanders may have been thinking of her own safety, among other considerations.

A second, senior Defense Department source we asked about the episode confirmed that the quote above is accurate. And a third, very well-placed American source we contacted separately told us that some kind of reference was made by the Red Cross representative "to either Nazis or the Third Reich"--which understandably offended the American soldiers present.

We called the ICRC last Wednesday for its side of the story, and a spokesman in Geneva confirmed that "there was a serious misunderstanding between the ICRC's team leader and [Coalition] authorities during our last visit to Camp Bucca." The ICRC also confirmed that "the team leader subsequently decided to leave the Iraq assignment."

The spokesman added, however, that he "can categorically say that the team leader did not in any sense compare the detention regime in Iraq to what happened in the Third Reich." Pressed as to whether he could rule out those terms having been used, the spokesman declined, citing the ICRC's practice of confidentiality when it comes to relations with the governments with which it works.

However, a second episode later last week shows that the ICRC is only too happy to throw that same confidentiality rule out the window when it suits its ideological purposes. It did so in the wake of the false Newsweek report about the treatment of the Quran at Guantanamo Bay. The ICRC's Washington office volunteered to the world's media that it had given the Pentagon "multiple" reports from Guantanamo detainees about mishandling of the Quran, after which the detainee complaints had ceased. Pentagon officials confirmed the news, adding that the incidents had been both "minor" and "inadvertent."

In other words, the ICRC hides behind the confidentiality rule when being candid might embarrass its own officials. But it drops the same rule when it is in a position to embarrass the United States, however unfairly. News of the ICRC Quran reports last week came just as the U.S. was scrambling to undo the damage in the Muslim world from the discredited Newsweek story.

This behavior has unfortunately become an ICRC pattern. A pair of earlier ICRC reports on U.S. detention policies in Iraq and at Guantanamo were leaked to the press, and readily confirmed by ICRC officials in Geneva. The Guantanamo report, moreover, called the practice of indefinite detention at that prison "tantamount to torture," a phrase that has since been repeated everywhere by people wanting to damage the U.S.

As we pointed out at the time, that statement was absurd, given that the ICRC's main complaint about the Gitmo detainees is that they were not granted prisoner of war status. POWs are explicitly allowed by the Geneva Conventions to be held indefinitely--that is, for the duration of a conflict. Another problem has been the ICRC's pretense that its policy document called Protocol 1--once dubbed "a shield for terrorists" by the New York Times--is settled international law and applies to the U.S.

Which brings us back to the "Nazi" reference by that ICRC official at Camp Bucca. We wouldn't normally report the remarks, however offensive, of a single official. But after we started asking about the incident, we began to hear from other sources that someone was attempting damage control by alerting the ICRC's friends in the media and State Department about what we might report. One media proponent of the "torture" allegation against the U.S. warned on the Internet that we were out to smear the ICRC (which, we should add, is not the same as the American Red Cross).

No. We are trying to understand how a representative of an organization pledged to neutrality and the honest investigation of detainee practices could compare American soldiers to the Nazi SS. And considering the timing and content of several ICRC confidentiality breaches concerning the U.S. war on terror, it's fair to ask if similar views aren't held by a substantial number in the organization.

The world needs a truly neutral humanitarian body of the sort the ICRC is supposed to be. But the Camp Bucca incident--in addition to the leaked Gitmo and Abu Ghraib reports--is evidence it isn't currently up to the task.

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