International Committee of the Red Cross in Action

By Karuna Kumar

In 2003, when the US and its allies chose to wage war on Iraq, it was a situation of armed conflict. Another armed conflict ensued in January 2009, when the Gaza war kicked off between Hamas and the Israeli forces.

In both situations, one institution that played a crucial role in helping those worst affected by these conflicts was the International Committee of the Red Cross. As the name suggests, this institution is part of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement.

“Our specific goal, which is where we differ from national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, is that we specifically help people who are victims of armed conflict or other situations of armed violence,” says Florian Westphal, Deputy Director of Communication and Information Management at ICRC.

He adds, “Among the things we do is distribute relief aid to people who have been displaced by war or patients in hospitals and clinics, people who have been injured in combat or people who have difficulty in accessing medical care because of fighting. We also visit people who have been detained and imprisoned in connection with wars, armed violence or other political and security incidents.”

The mandate

The Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are at the core of International Humanitarian Law, the body of law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects, dictates the underlying mandate of ICRC. One of its main functions is to promote this body of law and try to maximize respect for it.

Westphal believes that “by promoting respect for this we can ensure that all those who are not fighting civilians, for example, soldiers who have been wounded and who are detained are protected and assisted in line with this body of law.”

Crucial to understanding the role of ICRC is gaining clarity about armed conflict. Situations of armed conflict are mostly of two kinds – one that is fought between atleast two countries and another that is fought internally between different groups within a country.

On the ground

In explaining the role ICRC actually plays on the ground, Westphal uses examples of the situations in Sudan, Columbia, Somalia and Afghanistan. “We have been working in these countries for decades. Initially we began our presence when the fighting started, since then our presence has remained permanent because the tensions and the suffering it caused, continues till date. Unlike in natural disasters, in war, there is seldom a kind of single event that triggers things. Our long-term presence is extremely important because it helps us to really understand people’s needs in what are often very complex and polarised situations,” explains Westphal.

In the event of an armed conflict, typically the first thing that ICRC does is to remind governments and rebel groups of what their obligations are under the law and how they have to treat civilians and other people it protects during combat. Depending on its presence and ability, it starts to access what the needs are, who is most in need and how to develop a relief activity around it.

Regions under operation

While ICRC is present in roughly 80 countries, not all these countries are actually involved in war. Some find themselves in what are effectively ‘frozen’ conflicts: while there may not be any fighting there is no lasting peace either and the conflict is yet to be resolved. Here the ICRC tries to tackle some of the lasting after-effects of war, for example, by supporting the families of people still unaccounted for or helping those displaced by war and unable to return home. In these situations as well as in many countries at peace the ICRC also works to raise awareness of International Humanitarian Law, including by engaging in training with armed forces and discussing with armed forces and discussing with officials on how to translate its rules into national legislation.

“There are at present around a dozen situations where two-thirds of our budget goes, where more than half of the staff is employed. These areas currently include Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Columbia, Yemen, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Unfortunately war and the suffering it causes, especially for civilians has been an everyday reality in these countries for many years,” says a passionate Westphal.

Assistance, Protection and Prevention

Investigating further into the activities undertaken by ICRC, Westphal divides them into three broad categories – Assistance, Protection and Prevention. While assistance involves delivering food, shelter and providing clean drinking water, protection aims to ensure that the vulnerable and the needy are treated in accordance with the International Humanitarian Law.

“We visit prisons to make sure that the prisoners are treated humanely; that they have access to basic living conditions, sanitary conditions and medical care”, says Westphal elaborating on the protection function. Prevention is largely related to training and making more people aware of the law. We also make countries that are at peace, aware of their obligation to respect and ensure respect for these rules,” explains Westphal.

To be able to do its job and to reach those in need on all sides of the front lines while ensuring the security of its staff, the ICRC has to be scrupulously neutral, independent and apolitical. Westphal categorically insists, “We are not a political organisation, we are purely humanitarian and neutral in our operations. This can be an extremely difficult position to convey and convince people in war zones. It can almost sound as though you are indifferent but we have to be certain of maintaining an unbiased, apolitical stand.”

Building a communications strategy

Westphal coordinates with a network of communicators throughout the offices in the 80 countries, establishing the link between headquarters and the field.

Drawing specific light to his current role, Westphal says, “I am currently coordinating our activities in public communication including media relations, social media, audio-visual production and online and print publishing. I am also looking at a plethora of activities linked to environment scanning, issues management, reputational research and internal communications and public communications. With a view to building a long-term strategy around communication, my role involves overseeing all the various domains and integrating all the channels as much as possible.”

Environment scanning

Environment scanning aims to strengthen the ability of ICRC to understand what is going on around it and to gain an in-depth understanding of the situations they work in. “As part of this process, we not only analyse our presence in the media but also the broader issues that are of interest to us. This is also used to see how we benchmark with our competitors. Our colleagues in the various field offices monitor the environment in which they work. The aim and the challenge is to prioritise and to analyse information and to make it accessible to our colleagues so that it can contribute to their planning and implementation of activities in the field.”

Reputation research and internal communications

Over recent years, the ICRC has also consulting key stakeholders including governments, senior military officers, journalists and leaders of International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Society on its reputation and the drivers that shape it. “In future we also plan to consult other stakeholders such as the direct beneficiaries of our aid work in the field and our own staff,” says Westphal.

Considering internal communications as a major support function to enable the managers to communicate effectively, Westphal explains, “There is an understanding that major institution-wide initiatives that bring about significant changes to the way we do things have to be systematically supported by internal communications. For example, we are currently working on a new people management policy. How to explain that policy to 13,000 staff in 80 countries and how to gauge their feedback is a core element of that project.”

Social media and online communication

The 2009 Red Cross and Red Crescent Campaign titled – ‘Our World We Move’ – familiarized the institution with the use of social media. ICRC has begun using Facebook, YouTube, Scribd and Twitter and is continuing its presence on these social networking sites.

“In terms of tools I would also like to highlight the Intranet. Even though we have not had it for a very long time, it is a hugely valuable tool. We are now able to push the information out to our colleagues all over the world, much quicker which leaves less space for rumours and half-truths.”

He notes, “I must add here that the tools on their own without the behaviours and the mindset needed for effective internal communications will only have a limited impact.”

The only reservation Westphal holds in using social media is jeopardizing the neutral image ICRC must maintain at all times. He is categorical about not getting involved in politics and continually trying to maintain an unbiased image, whilst using new media to its greatest benefit.

Public communication

Much of ICRC’s public communication happens in the field. In addition to relying on social and traditional media, ICRC also spends much time on face-to-face dialogue that can go right down to the rebel groups who manage the check points. Westphal considers this field-based communication absolutely vital and supports it through training and capacity building. The use of online media, social media and print publications helps to maintain strong media relations.

Crisis communication: ‘The Gaza War’

Westphal refers to the confrontation in Gaza as an apt case study of a crisis communication situation.

In December 2008, sustained terrorist attacks began in Gaza and they continued through most of January 2009. In retaliation to the attacks by Hamas, the militant group in Gaza, Israeli forces opened fire on the Gaza strip. ‘The Gaza war’ continued for a period of three weeks.

“We were one of the few aid organisations that had a substantial presence inside Gaza. Also, under International Humanitarian Law, Gaza is an occupied territory – it is a situation where the law directly applies,” explains Westphal.

Much of the debate in the media worldwide at the time focussed on how both sides conducted their operations and whether this was done in accordance with international humanitarian law. Westphal recalls:

“We had many questions about the behaviour of the two sides. But the very first challenge we faced was internal, namely to bring everybody on the same page. It is a tough task, given that it is not that easy to know what’s actually happening on the ground. Communicating in Gaza and with Gaza was very difficult. Our own peoples’ movements in Gaza were very restricted and for them to explain what was going on the ground was not that easy.”

He continues, “Secondly, we are a very diverse organisation and people approach these issues very distinctly and under various influences. We had to make sure that colleagues in Gaza, Tel-Aviv, the rest of the Middle East, Europe and Washington are all on the same page. It takes a lot of internal communications to do so and it all has to be done very quickly. There was also a lot of public and media pressure on ICRC to take a position and to publicly judge, assess and give a verdict on what was going on. But to do this publicly risks jeopardising our acceptance as a neutral and independent organisation and thereby our ability to reach those people who need us most.”

Describing it as “a very intense operation – 24 hours a day/7 days a week” – he accepts that while everything went well on the ground, there were moments of incredible tensions; and quite a few learnings were drawn from the event. In particular, there was a need to develop a more comprehensive communications strategy – even if to do so in the midst of an acute crisis can seem counter-intuitive.

Case of Egypt and Tunisia

The sort of situation there is, largely conditions the presence of ICRC and the role it is able to play. While Egypt and Tunisia experienced a lot of violence earlier this year, neither situation could be described as war. Traditionally, in both countries the ICRC had been focusing on communications around International Humanitarian Law.

“In Egypt and Tunisia, the first thing we wanted to know was if anything had happened to our colleagues based in these countries. That is where the internal communications work first began,” Westphal explains.

“Prior to the recent events, our activities in Egypt had been very much focused on communications. We ran our Arabic language websites from Egypt and had experts based there promoting the awareness of the International Humanitarian law and building contacts with National Red Crescent Society.”

In response to the most recent crises in both countries, the ICRC quickly stepped up its action distributing medical supplies to hospitals in Egypt and visiting prisoners in Tunisia.


Westphal mentions that both quantitative and qualitative evaluation is crucial to assessing the ICRC communications. “We use Factiva and broadcast monitoring services, focussing in particular on a core list of more than 100 media outlets to measure our visibility. We occasionally commission more in-depth media analysis to assess our impact. We then decipher what needs change and adapt our communication strategy on the basis of those learnings,” explains Westphal.

With a passionate belief in the mission of ICRC and with a conviction to see it grow, Westphal has many plans for the ICRC’s communications. One of them is the idea of organising an event on the Red Cross and Red Crescent in association with TED later this year.

“But no matter what new ways we find to communicate about the ICRC, we must never lose sight of an organisation that is above all rooted in reality of the situations it works in and the people it tries to help. That’s where we have to be able to deliver.”

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