Killings prompt Red Cross to reconsider its mission Agency questions its role in a 'new world' of war

December 22, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GENEVA -- Shocked by the killing of six of its workers in Chechnya last week, officials at the International Committee of the Red Cross are doing a great deal of thinking about the future for the 133-year-old organization.

Throughout the offices on the organization's serene campus, workers speak of the need for "reflection" and "soul searching."

"We have to do a lot of hard thinking about how we are going to operate in this new world," said Urs Boegli, who in 14 years with the Red Cross has worked in Cambodia, Angola, Sudan and Bosnia and who is now head of its communications department.

Some of the questions being asked are relatively simple, such as what measures must be taken to protect Red Cross workers.

But the probing is far broader, as the group faces a world in which ethnic conflicts and anarchy wreak more death and destruction than wars between states.

How does the Red Cross explain the Geneva conventions, which were designed to mitigate the ravages of war and which regular armies had a self-interest in obeying, to warlords, paramilitary groups and criminal gangs? Are rules of war even relevant in today's conflicts?

And with relief aid becoming militarized and politicized, as in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia, how is the Red Cross to protect its neutrality and convince warring factions of its humanitarian mission?

The Red Cross is organizing a conference around the theme: "The changing face of war-conflicts in the 21st century. Is there room for humanitarian action?"

The question underscores the fact that all relief organizations are being forced to analyze their missions, an examination that has acquired new urgency after the killings last week in Chechnya, where rebels are seeking independence from Russia.

"This should be a real watershed, for the international humanitarian community and especially the U.N.," said Julia Taft, president of InterAction, a Washington-based coalition of 156 private relief and development organizations. It is time, she said, for the United Nations and countries like the United States to pursue the perpetrators of violence against aid workers, just as they do terrorists and drug traffickers.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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