The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) assisted in the release last week of 29 Chinese hostages held in Sudan, taking a role in the negotiations and handling the physical transfer of the hostages. In an email interview, David Forsythe, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discussed the ICRC’s involvement in international conflicts.
WPR: What role has the ICRC historically played in humanitarian and conflict situations, as well as hostage situations?
David Forsythe: Since 1863 the ICRC has tried to play a leading humanitarian role in armed conflict and other situations of violence like domestic instability and sometimes hostage taking. It has helped states adopt legal provisions to govern the process of war to benefit war victims, and it has been an actor in the field trying to help protect and assist persons in need of an independent, impartial and neutral humanitarian intermediary. It sometimes gets involved in hostage situations at the request of the relevant parties, but more in the technical or managerial sense of helping to implement what the interested parties have agreed to. In general, it does not engage in political mediation or negotiate the terms of hostage release since it has no means to guarantee compliance. Its reputation for efficiency, discretion and neutrality has led a number of actors to utilize its services in various situations. It has a right of visitation to detainees in international war, but its role in hostage situations outside of war is ad hoc.