Why the ICRC should think twice about its work on urban violence

By Miriam Bradley
Assistant Professor
Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals

Synopsis: The ICRC’s work on urban violence has led to significant and surprising shifts in its humanitarian boundaries—shifts that may damage its ability to carry out its core mandate.

Keywords: humanitarianism, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), IHL, urban violence

These days, more people meet violent deaths outside armed conflict contexts than within them. Collective violence outside armed conflict is often concentrated in cities, and this so-called urban violence, which may be perpetrated by street gangs and organized crime groups, as well as state security forces, affects cities across the world. It is of particular concern in Latin America, home to more than 40 of the 50 most violent cities (as measured by 2017 homicide rates), including the five most violent, each of which has a homicide rate around fifty times the global average. Urban violence is not limited to homicides—in many cases, sexual violence, extortion, displacement and disappearances are also commonplace.

Violence in cities is clearly the cause of much human suffering, but it is much less clear who is best placed to address urban violence, and with what kinds of policies. The repressive and militarized responses of several Latin American governments to gangs and organized crime are widely seen to have been ineffective in reducing violence in the long term, and even counter-productive. Several commentators have therefore argued that developmental and humanitarian approaches are required, and over the past ten years, many international humanitarian agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have incorporated urban violence into their mandates. However, more critical humanitarian scholarship has problematized the framing of urban violence as a humanitarian crisis. ‘Humanitarianizing’ a situation calls for a humanitarian response focused on addressing symptoms rather than causes, on meeting immediate needs rather than engaging in political struggle or economic development. The old solution offered by humanitarian agencies is arguably inappropriate for the new problem of urban violence.

In a recent article examining the ICRC’s response to urban violence, I also take a critical perspective, but with a different focus—on the consequences for the ICRC itself. I show that the incorporation of urban violence into the ICRC mandate has led to significant and surprising shifts in the ICRC’s humanitarian boundaries—from eschewing any effort to prevent or reduce conflict and prioritising neutrality and dialogue with all parties to conflict, the ICRC has begun engaging in violence-prevention and violence-reduction activities, compromising its neutrality and limiting dialogue with some armed groups. These shifts, I argue, may undermine the ability of the ICRC to implement its core mandate.

“The ICRC has transformed its modus operandi in response to urban violence, and this raises concerns about its capacity to carry out its core mandate”

The ICRC’s core mandate is to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict—work that is both facilitated and delimited by international humanitarian law (IHL). IHL regulates international and non-international armed conflicts, and the ICRC has a unique role in promoting compliance. This includes documenting alleged violations of IHL and then making confidential representations to the alleged perpetrators with the aim of persuading them to increase their compliance. This ‘confidential dialogue’ is a trademark of the ICRC, and a commitment to such dialogue with all parties to conflict is one aspect of the neutrality on which the ICRC prides itself. For the ICRC, neutrality is not only an operational principle, but also part of its institutional identity. It prohibits taking sides in hostilities, and is closely linked to the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello in the laws of war.

Concerned only with jus in bello (the subject of IHL), the ICRC does not seek to address the causes of any given conflict (which it understands as a political goal, beyond the scope of a humanitarian mandate), but rather to impose limits on the way in which it is conducted (which it understands as part of its mandate, and a properly humanitarian goal). The limits it seeks to impose on the conduct of conflict are those set out in IHL. Thus, the ICRC engages in the demobilization of child soldiers, because child recruitment is a violation of IHL, but not in the demobilization of adult combatants, which is understood as taking sides and seeking to resolve conflict. As the self-styled ‘promoter and guardian’ of IHL, the ICRC fiercely guards the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello, a distinction which enables the ICRC to argue for compliance with IHL, regardless of the justice or injustice of the motives of the belligerents and their recourse to conflict.

Working outside IHL in contexts of urban violence, the traditional ICRC focus on regulating (but very definitely not working to reduce) violence is transformed into activities aimed at violence prevention and violence reduction. The ICRC can and does engage in dialogue with the police and other public forces, working to get them to comply with international human rights law or domestic legislation on the use of force. However, working outside of IHL the ICRC lacks a normative framework with which to assess what conduct by non-state actors is acceptable and what is unacceptable—under domestic legislation and international human rights law they are invariably prohibited from using force at all—and this leads to a transformation in ICRC work. In a number of cities, for example, the ICRC works to dissuade young people from joining such groups, or to leave such groups after joining—activities which would be unthinkable if the group was a party to armed conflict as per IHL, because they would constitute demobilisation and be considered political in nature. Moreover, the ICRC has begun to distinguish between different groups according to their motives, and is cautious about dialogue with criminal or economically-motivated armed groups.

In short, the ICRC has transformed its modus operandi in response to urban violence, and this raises concerns about its capacity to carry out its core mandate. These transformations may erode the ICRC’s moral authority, and hence reduce its power to persuade combatants in armed conflict contexts to comply with IHL, irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of their or their opponents’ goals. There is a risk that the ICRC will lose credibility with armed groups as it starts to judge their motives, and to avoid dialogue with those it judges to be primarily ‘criminal’ or ‘economically-motivated’. There is also a risk that, in distinguishing the motives of different actors, the ICRC undermines its own arguments that any given party to conflict must respect IHL regardless of the rightness or wrongness of their opponents’ motives. Ultimately, then, these shifts may serve to erode the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello which the ICRC has fiercely defended, and on which its core mandate is grounded.

Miriam Bradley’s research focuses on the politics and practice of international humanitarianism. Her latest publication is: Bradley, M. (2020). From armed conflict to urban violence: transformations in the International Committee of the Red Cross, international humanitarianism, and the laws of war. European Journal of International Relations. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066120908637

Image credit: ICRC

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