In the absence of a serious implementation mechanism in the Geneva Conventions, much of the leading responsibility for promoting their observance falls upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the 150-year-old institution that is a sui generis hybrid between a Swiss non-governmental organization (NGO) and an international organization. With its secretariat in Geneva and delegations throughout the world, the ICRC is, in many conflicts, the most direct voice for the Conventions. The central role of the ICRC pre-dates the Conventions, for the ICRC has been the driving force behind the codification of international humanitarian law (IHL) since the mid-nineteenth century.
As a result, the Geneva Conventions, like their predecessors, contemplate, or even assign, certain responsibilities to the ICRC (or an equivalent organization that does not currently exist). Yet there is an enormous gap between the discrete and ultimately limited role of the ICRC under the Conventions and its actual operations, accepted as legitimate by most states and non-state actors. Today, the bulk of ICRC activities are not even mentioned in the Conventions, and the legal duty on states to cooperate with the ICRC is highly circumscribed. Rather, the institution has, in its long existence, succeeded in bypassing a weak treaty mandate through a process and identity characterized by discretion and flexibility. As a result, states now expect the ICRC to insert itself in situations of international armed conflict (IAC) and non-international armed conflict (NIAC), as well as in other non-conflict situations, and warring parties are expected to allow the ICRC to carry out its mandate. Both the ICRC’s operations and the expectations by and on states regarding its work demonstrate the limitations of relying upon the Conventions’ texts for understanding contemporary IHL.
Publication Information & Recommended Citation
Giladi, Rotem and Steven R. Ratner. "The Role of the International Committee of the Red Cross." In The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary, edited by Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta, and Marco Sassoli, 525-48. Oxford Commentaries on International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.