Monday, October 20, 2008

Red Cross Principle of IMPARTIALITY

By Niniu Oligao (SIRC Dissemination Officer) on the discussion of Fundamental Principles as the Red Cross working tools.

While the Fundamental Principles form a whole in which each principles is interpreted in the light of the others, they also each characterize the Movement's mission differently. The principle of impartiality thus represents the very essence of Red Cross and Red Crescent thought: it inspired Henry Dunant at Solferino, it has been cited at every stage of formulation of the principles and it is, moreover, inherent to the Geneva Conventions. The text of the principle of impartiality is worded as follows:

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

Impartiality: the preliminary condition for non-discrimination

Non-discrimination was embodied from the outset in the Geneva Conventions. According to the initial 1864 Convention, any soldier no longer able to fight, by reason of wound or sickness, was to be collected and cared for, no matter what his nationality. That Convention, which was revised in 1906 and 1929, explicitly prohibited only discrimination based on nationality, whereas the 1949 Geneva Conventions state that adverse distinctions based on "sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions or any other similar criteria" are forbidden. The final words indicate that all types of discrimination are prohibited and that those listed are given merely as examples. This basic prohibition is also contained in the Additional Protocols of 1977, with a more detailed, though not exhaustive, list of the criteria on which it is prohibited to base discrimination.

As one of the principles of international humanitarian law, non-discrimination is above all an imperative rule governing the work of the Movement, whose concern reaches out to all those in need, regardless of any factors that are not humanitarian.

Theoretically, non-discrimination is the refusal to apply distinctions of an adverse nature to human beings simply because they belong to a specific category. In the context of humanitarian ethics, non-discrimination requires that all objective distinctions among individuals be ignored, so that the aid given transcends the most virulent antagonisms: in time of armed conflict or internal disturbances, friend and foe will be assisted in the same way; likewise, those in need will be succoured at all times, whoever they may be.In practice, all the components of the Movement must strictly avoid any form of discrimination when providing material assistance or giving medical treatment. For example, in a hospital run by a National Red Cross Society and treating numerous casualties, among them enemy wounded, it would be incompatible with the principle of non-discrimination to refuse to admit the latter so that the hospital could take in more wounded compatriots. The same would be true if the National Red Crescent Society in a country torn by internal strife gave food aid to the victims of only one of the parties, and made no attempt to bring relief to those whose ideas the Society did not share.

The ICRC has the additional duty of opposing discrimination in connection with its visits to persons detained as a result of a conflict or internal disturbances. It requests the detaining authorities to give the same humane treatment to all such persons and ensures that none of them is placed at any kind of disadvantage for reasons of nationality or differing political convictions. Distinctions arising from humanitarian and rational motives, however, are not incompatible with the rule of non-discrimination: for example, requesting extra blankets for those less able to tolerate cold because of their origin, age or health.

The National Societies are particularly concerned with the requirement of non-discrimination, which is in fact a condition for their
recognition. They must be open to all who wish to become members and must permit all social, political and religious groups to be
represented; this representativity is the guarantee of the Societies' ability to engage in exclusively humanitarian activities and to resist all partisan considerations.

National Societies must be open to all nationals of their respective countries who are willing and able to help them. Foreigners who wish to join should also be able to become members, although the Societies would not be acting contrary to the principle of impartiality by refusing to accept them, since in time of war, the National Societies can operate as auxiliaries to the armed forces' medical services and the volunteer workers assigned to this task are placed on the same footing as medical personnel in the national armed forces; this could lead to difficulties for resident foreigners recruited as volunteers.

Impartiality: help proportionate to the degree of suffering

Non-discrimination means that all those in need shall be helped, yet to treat everyone in the same way without taking into account how much they are suffering, or how urgent their needs are, would not be equitable. This means that, for the Movement, the only priority that can be set in dealing math those who require help must be based on need, and the order in which available aid is shared out must correspond to the urgency of the distress it is intended to relieve.

International humanitarian law stipulates that preferential treatment must be given to certain specially vulnerable categories of protected persons, such as children and the elderly. It requires that the sick and wounded be treated with complete equality as regards care and protection and that only urgent medical reasons may justify an order of priority in the care provided. Therefore, when medical personnel are dealing with an influx of casualties, they must exercise a choice based on proportionality and treat first of all those whose condition requires immediate care.

The same holds true for all the components of the Movement: they must ensure that the distribution of food or medicines corresponds to the most pressing needs. In other words, for equal suffering, the aid will be the same, while for unequal suffering, aid will be proportionate to the intensity of distress.

In practice, the rule that relief must be proportionate to need is not easy to follow. For example, it is sometimes difficult for a National Society to collect funds for victims in countries other than its own since everyone gives according to his affinities, and national self-centredness wants aid to improve the well-being of the local population before that of foreigners. Even when this kind of nationalism is surmounted, there is a greater willingness to help neighbouring countries, whose distress is more familiar and can be sympathized with more readily. The magnificent wave of solidarity with Romania among European countries at the beginning of 1990 was such that at one point restraint had to be called for, since the gifts received far exceeded the immediate needs. Yet at the same time, in Africa and the Far East, hundreds of thousands of displaced people were barely surviving. The ICRC, for its part, has great difficulty in getting the parties to a conflict to understand that the only thing it must grant equally to each is its willingness to serve, and that in other respects its activities are proportional to the needs, and consequently unequal when distress is greater on one side than on the other.

These few examples demonstrate how difficult it is to apply the principle of proportionality in its strictest sense. But the Movement observes the principle as closely as possible by taking the most urgent suffering as the sole criterion for priority in its work.

Impartiality: the exclusion of personal bias

We have already seen that non-discrimination means disregarding objective differences between individuals. Impartiality in its true sense requires that subjective distinctions be set aside as well. To illustrate the difference between the two notions: a National Society that refuses to provide its services to a specific group of people, because of their ethnic origin, fails to observe the rule of non-discrimination; whereas a National Society staff member who, in the exercise of his functions, favours a friend by giving him better treatment than that given to others, contravenes the principle of impartiality.

As shown above, impartiality is expected of those called on to care for the less fortunate. It demands that an effort be made to overcome all prejudices, to reject the influence of personal factors, whether conscious or unconscious, and to make decisions on the basis of facts alone, in order to act without bias towards or against anyone.

In other words, impartiality implies the objective scrutiny of problems and the "depersonalization" of humanitarian work. Thus, while it is natural and human for volunteer workers of a National Society to side emotionally with one of the parties to the conflict, they are nevertheless expected to disregard their feelings in the matter when giving aid, by relieving the suffering of all victims, or when distributing relief supplies, by making no adverse distinction regarding one of the parties to the conflict.

It appears, indeed, that the principle of impartiality thus defined is an ideal to be attained, an inner quality that is rarely inborn but that most often requires one to overcome one's instincts. It demands from members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies an arduous and prolonged effort to overcome their own prejudices and preferences in order to be able to perform the purest act of impartiality which is to give more help to the adversary who is the victim of great misfortune than to the friend whose suffering is less severe, or to care for the more severely wounded, even if guilty, before the innocent whose injuries are slight.

When confronted with distress...

... the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement responds by giving aid without distinction. Mindful of human suffering, it has established an ethical foundation which is embodied in the Fundamental Principles and acts as a guideline for its work in the midst of conflicts and disasters for the victims it is pledged to assist. Each of the Movement's components, in its own area of activity and every one of its millions of members, are committed to implementing these Fundamental Principles and manifesting them in their work, so that the ideals of human solidarity and love upheld by the Movement shall not be merely empty words.