Ethics & International Affairs


Choices More Ethical Than Legal: The International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights1

David P. Forsythe


It may come as a surprise to many that the ICRC was the first agency established representing the International Red Cross and Red Crescent network to protect and assist victims of war and victims of politics. This article explores the ineffective consequences of international laws overseeing such victims and argues that proper implementation of these laws requires policy, without which laws can never be executed. ICRC has often coordinated relief for victims in such places as Somalia and Bosnia, in fact more than all the UN agencies combined, when the rest of the world was still ignoring them. When law is silent, and often during war time it is, human rights policies must be built on ethical choice.

David P. Forsythe is Professor and Graduate Chair in the Political Science Department at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. Among his recent and forthcoming publications are: Democracy, War, and Covert Action, Journal of Peace Research (Fall 1992); “The UN Secretary-General and Human Rights,” in Gordenker and Rivlin, eds., The Challenging Role of the UN Secreta-Gen-eral (1993); and Human Rights and Peace (1993). He is also editor of and contributor to Human Rights in the New Europe.


1 An earlier version of this essay was presented at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law in London during May 1992. The author is grateful for comments obtained through that invitation. A version was also discussed with various ICRC officials in Geneva during June 1992. The author would like to thank them for their interest in this research and their willingness to engage in a candid dialogue.