Learning the lessons from the failures of the past, the International Red Cross president vows to do his best to prevent future catastrophes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in Geneva on Tuesday.
Ahead of the gathering, an exhibition showcasing relevant material from the ICRC archives was opened to the public at Geneva’s Red Cross Museum.
The conference – attended by some 200 participants, centered on “Remembering the Shoah: The ICRC and the International Community’s Efforts in Responding to Genocide and Protecting Civilians” – reflected on how legal and political responses to mass killings have developed since the Holocaust.
In his keynote address, ICRC President Peter Maurer conceded that “the ICRC failed to protect civilians and, most notably, the Jews persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime. It failed as a humanitarian organization because it lost its moral compass.
“The ICRC did not see Nazi Germany for what it was. Instead, the organization maintained the illusion that the Third Reich was a ‘regular partner,’ a state that occasionally violates laws, not unlike any army during World War I, occasionally using illegal means and methods of warfare,” Maurer stated.
“World silence and indifference to the fate of the Jewish people led to the Holocaust. The Red Cross chose silence as well,” said WJC President Ronald Lauder. “In the face of a human catastrophe, silence is not a moral alternative. As one of the most respected international organizations in the world, the ICRC has an important obligation that goes beyond relief work. Today, this is more important than ever because of what we see throughout the Middle East, Africa, and even right here in Europe.”
The ICRC was the principal humanitarian institution during World War II, maintaining communications with both the Allied and Axis powers. While the ICRC did provide assistance and protection to Allied prisoners of war held by Nazi Germany, it did not do the same for Jewish victims, as Nazi Berlin refused all humanitarian requests to help Jews victims.
At the same time, the ICRC did not publicly denounce the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.
World Needs Moral Leadership
The ICRC president stressed that his organization has learned from past failures. “We have chosen to confront our past and to embrace transparency. Our public archives are proof of our acknowledgment of the past and our continued effort to confront uncomfortable truths,” he said.
He emphasized that “for the ICRC, somehow, ‘never again’ [regarding another holocaust] resonates with difficulty because of what we see and experience on the ground every day. We cannot guarantee that a humanitarian catastrophe of the extent of the Holocaust will not happen again. On the contrary, we witness a catalogue of atrocities, every day, in wars across the globe.”
Maurer suggested that solutions could including turning “trauma and bare instinct for survival into productive energy to build institutions, strengthen accountability and legal frameworks and thus open spaces for more humane societies.”
Lauder commended the organization for acknowledging past mistakes. “You have already proven your moral authority because you have opened up your historical records. You have admitted that you could have and should have done more,” he stated.
The world was “in desperate need of leadership in the ongoing debate between right and wrong,” he continued. “And that is exactly what this is a struggle between good and evil. There is no ambiguity when marauding armies kill everything in their path, beheading men, women and even children. This could not be clearer, just as it was clear 70 years ago when the concentration camps were liberated. The world today faces its greatest challenge since the end of World War II. Nothing could be more important in 2015. The International Committee of the Red Cross must show the world the way.”