On 15 and 16 October 2020, eleven flights from and to five airports in Yemen and Saudi Arabia repatriated more than 1,000 detainees of the Yemeni conflict. Following months of negotiations and a hard-won agreement between the parties to the conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) acted as a neutral intermediary and organized these repatriations, from the initial planning phase to the actual flights and their follow-up.

Over the past decades, the ICRC has facilitated the release of more than 1,800 people held by non-state armed groups in Colombia. In recent years in Afghanistan, the ICRC has been playing an essential role between the parties to the conflict in the handover of the remains of fallen fighters and civilians. In 2016, for instance, the families of 1,355 deceased civilians and combatants could bury their relatives after the ICRC handed over the remains to them.

In 2016, the ICRC facilitated the return of 21 girls kidnapped in 2014 from Chibok, in Nigeria. In 2017, it assisted in the handover to the authorities of 82 other girls. It also provided the authorities with advice on their efforts to reintegrate the girls into society. In Azerbaijan, between January and June 2021, thanks to the commitment of its staff in Baku and Barda, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary in 182 search and retrieval operations for mortal remains.

Yemen. People formerly detained in relation to the conflict in Yemen are transported back to their region of origin or to their home countries by the ICRC.  15/10/2020. ©ICRC/SAEED, Mubarak. V-P-YE-E-02054

The ICRC has played this role of a neutral intermediary for more than 150 years. These examples are just a few among many others.

When, where, and why does the ICRC play such a role? What are the types of activities that benefit from this role? To whom is it beneficial?

This article, divided into two parts, answers these questions and highlights the ICRC’s role from historical and contemporary perspectives. Based on existing internal and external literature, the first part highlights a few relevant examples from the past and shows how the ICRC has fulfilled its mandate throughout time and all over the world. It showcases the variety of situations, conflicts, and issues where the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary by selecting a few emblematic historical examples.

This contribution then focuses on the ten past years (2010-2019). Thus, this article does not contain information on the ICRC’s action after 2019. Based on the ICRC’s annual reports and a systematic review of the contexts where the ICRC has been active, a thematic approach highlights the main categories of activities that characterize the ICRC’s work as a neutral intermediary. We gathered all relevant information in a data set that ICRC staff can use internally. This second part only focuses on examples where the ICRC has publicly communicated its action. The examples showcased in this section come from the ICRC annual report and are sometimes reproduced verbatim. Thus, it does not comprehensively analyze all activities as a neutral intermediary.

Therefore, both parts illustrate the ICRC’s activities and involvement beyond figures and do not propose a complete view of this rich and complex phenomenon.

Nigeria. Some of the 82 released “Chibok Girls” board an aircraft. 07/05/2017. ©ICRC.

The role of the ICRC as a neutral intermediary is granted by article 5.3 of the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: “The International Committee may take any humanitarian initiative which comes within its role as a specifically neutral and independent institution and intermediary and may consider any question requiring examination by such an institution”[1]. According to its policy, the ICRC temporarily becomes a specifically neutral and independent intermediary when it acts as a third party between two or several parties in dispute, with their agreement and in order to facilitate the resolution of all or some aspects of the dispute and/or the implementation of a settlement agreement. It has not always been defined as such, and this contribution will retrospectively investigate the past based on the contemporary definition of this role.

From the creation of the Movement to the end of the Second World War

The ICRC playing a role as a neutral intermediary is almost as old as the organization itself. At its inception, the Committee and its five founding members acted as an intermediary between states to ratify the 1864 Geneva Convention or between national societies to develop the Movement.

During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, the ICRC set up the Basel agency to exchange information on prisoners between the belligerents. This agency does not only constitute the first tracing activity ever; it is also likely the first occasion where the ICRC was directly employed as an intermediary in conflict settings. A few years after the conflict, Gustave Moynier, the ICRC’s second president, wrote that the Basel agency had fulfilled its mandate and served as an intermediary between belligerents and neutral countries, ensuring the equal and fair distribution of relief to wounded soldiers from both sides[2].

Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. Painting by Paul-Emile Boutigny. 1870. ©ICRC. V-P-HIST-E-00403

At that time, Henry Dunant had already been dismissed by the ICRC and left Geneva. While in Paris, he nonetheless promoted the Geneva Convention to the French Government during Paris’ siege. He also remained very active after the French defeat and during the famous “Paris Commune”, when a revolutionary government ruled the city from 18 March to 28 May 1871. He acted as an intermediary between the government of Versailles and the generals of the insurgents[3].

During the First World War, the ICRC conducted several activities as a neutral intermediary. For instance, it transmitted many complaints from belligerents to others about alleged violations of the law: the bombing of medical installations, the sinking of hospital ships, illegal internment of sanitary personnel, etc.[4] It also used its right of initiative. If the Committee’s proposal to implement truces to recover the bodies on the battlefield was unsuccessful, the ICRC and Switzerland convinced the belligerents to repatriate severely sick and wounded prisoners and intern them in Switzerland. Resulting from months of arduous negotiations between the French and the German, with the Swiss and the ICRC serving as neutral intermediaries, the 1918 Bern agreements constituted the culmination of these innovative initiatives[5].

During the Italo-Ethiopian war, the ICRC delegates acted as neutral contacts between the numerous Red Cross national societies operating in Ethiopia[6]. The ICRC played a role in the evacuation and repatriation of civilians, including thousands of children, during the Spanish Civil War[7]. It also established a neutralized zone in Madrid.

At the Second World War outbreak, the ICRC carried out or proposed many activities as a neutral intermediary. For instance, it used its right of initiative and proposed its services to all belligerents to repatriate wounded and sick prisoners of war or their internment in neutral countries. In 1941, despite the agreement of both Germany and Great Britain, repatriations of prisoners through the Channel generally failed. As of 1942, the ICRC’s role between Great Britain and Italy was more successful. The ICRC was active at the end of the conflict, when “surrendered enemy personnel” in hands of the American forces were waiting for their repatriation. The ICRC also participated in the evacuation of civilians in several contexts, for instance, during the famine in Greece[8]. Eventually, one could notice its role as a neutral intermediary for the supply of Channel Islands[9].

Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Evacuation. 1936-1939. ©ICRC. V-P-HIST-01859-15

The Cold War

The Cold War and its world polarization constituted a challenge for the ICRC. Accusing the organization of being Westerner, the communist bloc rejected the ICRC’s role as a neutral intermediary and neutral organization[10]. For instance, during the Korean war, the ICRC could not access prisoners held by North Korea. It could only participate in the repatriations of prisoners from both sides in April and May 1953, during the hostilities[11]. The ICRC failed during the Indochina war and during the Vietnam war, when it unsuccessfully tried to be recognized as a neutral intermediary and get access to American prisoners held by North Vietnamese authorities [12]. During the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962-1963, this role was requested by one of the parties to the conflict, but denied by the other.

Korean War 1950-1953. Exchange of sick and wounded prisoners. 04/1953. ©ICRC. V-P-KPKR-N-00003-08

One of its few actions in Central and Eastern Europe, in Hungary in 1956[13], did not really involve activities as a neutral intermediary. But from 1960 to 1972, at the request of the Federal Republic of Germany, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary between Western Germany and countries that had no diplomatic relations with the Germans, including Poland and Hungary, for the financial compensation of victims of pseudo-medical experiments by the Nazis[14].

Nevertheless, they were many other successes, even in the context of the Cold War. For instance, the ICRC was present in the independence war in Indonesia as soon as 1945, following a request from the Dutch and the support of the Indonesians[15]. In 1946, it acted as a neutral intermediary for the evacuation of 38’000 civilians, mainly Dutch citizens[16]. In 1947, it played a similar role in the evacuation of thousands of Chinese citizens[17]. During the first Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1947, the ICRC could visit detainees on both sides and act as a neutral intermediary for tracing activities and the evacuation of around 5’000 civilians in Cashmere[18]. These activities resumed during the 1965 and 1971 conflicts[19].

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October and November 1962 was, no bad pun, one of the hottest moments of the Cold War. Many argue that the world had never been so close to a nuclear conflict after the USA discovered the Soviets were installing missiles launching bases in Cuba. President Kennedy imposed a “quarantine” (a naval blockade) to prevent further missiles from reaching Cuba. Even though it later pretended the request came from the UN, the ICRC discretely offered its service to the UN general secretary, the USA, and the USSR to find a peaceful solution. It proposed that delegates could inspect Soviets boats navigating from and to the Caribbean to ensure they were not carrying weapons[20].

Eventually, the USA and the USSR reached an agreement before the ICRC could organize such an activity. Nevertheless, even though the crisis was eventually solved without the ICRC’s involvement, “The superpowers eventually found their way to a peaceful outcome, but the fact remained that when the world sought a body guaranteeing neutrality and impartiality – in this case in order to inspect the cargo of ships – it was to the ICRC that the world had turned.”[21].

Sound archive: Organisation du CICR : Intervention durant la crise de Cuba. 07/11/1962. ©ICRC. V-S-10017-A-06

Moreover, this crisis triggered the creation of a new doctrine to be used in similar circumstances. “It was agreed that the ICRC would be ready in the future to lend its good offices only on condition:

  • that peace was threatened by the danger of nuclear war;
  • that the United Nations declared itself unable to intervene;
  • that the ICRC was called upon to lend its support to an efficient mission within the scope of the Red Cross principles,
  • and that all parties concerned gave their approval to the intervention under the ICRC’s conditions”[22].

Yemen. ICRC delegate evacuating a wounded. 1964. ©ICRC/ROCHAT, André. V-P-YE-N-00103-29

In Yemen, in 1963-1964, the ICRC served as a neutral intermediary between the various parties to the conflict, including sponsoring countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It visited detainees on both sides and contributed to repatriations of prisoners, for example, Egyptian soldiers detained in Saudi Arabia[23]. In 1965, the ICRC negotiated a truce to evacuate the wounded between the parties to the non-international conflict in the Dominican Republic. The truce triggered further talks that led the conflict to an end.

Dominican Republic. An ICRC delegate in front of a Car riddled with bullets. 1965. ©ICRC. V-P-DO-N-00001-30

In early 1979, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary between the parties to the Sino-Vietnamese war. It visited prisoners of war on both sides and contributed to their repatriation[24]. In Northern Ireland, in 1981, the ICRC manifested its readiness to act as a humanitarian intermediary between the detainees and the detaining authorities. During the Soviet-Afghan war, the ICRC and the Swiss Confederation acted as neutral intermediaries for the internment in Switzerland of a few Soviet soldiers held by the Afghan opposition[25].

Vietnam. Simultaneous release of prisoners under the auspices of the Chinese and Vietnamese Red Cross societies, in presence of ICRC delegates.
21/05/1979. ©ICRC/Zenruffinen, F. V-P-VN-N-00099-05

Israel, Occupied Territories, and neighboring countries

As soon as March 1947, the ICRC aimed at establishing a delegation in the region. Acting as a neutral intermediary, it played an essential role during the first Israeli-Arab war of 1948[26]. For instance, it acted for the repatriation of wounded prisoners or the transfer of civilians during the hostilities; and during the post-conflict repatriations in 1949. It also took under the protection of the emblem various medical infrastructures and, thanks to its acceptance to both parties, protected sanitary convoys or the evacuation of wounded across the frontline. Moreover, the ICRC established safe areas, also protected by the emblem, to save the lives of non-combatants.

Jacques de Reynier, head of the ICRC operations in Palestine, argued that the ICRC’s action directly saved the lives of 15’000 persons and probably indirectly saved twice more people[27]. De Reynier gave a moving account of his experience as a neutral intermediary across the frontline:

“This is not as pleasant as one might think to go out on the street, alone, by foot, with a Red Cross armband and often a flag in hand when the bullets are whistling around you […] After a few successful passages across frontlines, usually at the same time and through the same streets, soldiers eventually know you, and all it takes is then a small nod, an apostrophe, a funny word to be identified and able to pass without being shot. We can risk having a comrade pass, then a convoy, and eventually, we end up moving around, arguably a little dangerously, but we move around. Later, we got one, then several cars, completely painted in white, with Red Cross on all sides, including on the roof. A large Red Cross flag fluttered from a pole attached just in front of the front door, protruding beyond the car’s body. It was visible from a distance, even against the light. It was lit by a special lamp attached to the roof at night. […] We drove very slowly and we often honked, to attract attention and not give the impression of a clandestine trip or surprise” [28].

In the conflicts that followed, the ICRC continued to play a recurrent, though challenging, intermediary role between Israel and Arabic countries. During the Suez crisis (1956-1957), the ICRC organized the repatriation of wounded Egyptian soldiers in November 1956 and, in 1957, the repatriation of prisoners in Israeli and Egyptian hands. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, acting as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC repatriated 5’500 prisoners of war and 1’000 civilians. At the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, 9’000 prisoners were repatriated under its auspices. During the Israeli intervention in Lebanon (1982-1985), the ICRC repatriated groups of released prisoners. It also acted for the return of mortal remains in 1967 and 1973.

Golan. Exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war between Syria and Israel. ©ICRC/Benz, Jörg. V-P-ILAA-D-00020-14

The ICRC played and continues to play an essential role as a neutral intermediary to reestablish family links in the region, for example, by transferring Red Cross messages across demarcation lines, by transferring people for humanitarian reasons, including for family reunification (the marriages in occupied Golan being the most famous examples). Most of these activities continue nowadays.

Eventually, the ICRC acted about hostage-taking and plane hijackings. Among several examples, the ICRC accepted to act as a neutral intermediary between a Palestinian commando and Israeli authorities following the hijack of a Sabena plane from Vienna to Tel Aviv until the unexpected intervention of Israeli special forces. These events led to the establishment of a doctrine related to hostage-takings[29]. The ICRC has played a crucial role in Israel and occupied territories over the past decades. Despite all the challenges faced by generations of delegates, as recalled by Jacques de Reynier:

“Amid such diverse and contradictory passions, the Red Cross flag was the only one that could unite all the combatants in the same charitable thought. It would be sufficient to prove that humanity had not abandoned every ideal and that, in the worst moments, one does not vainly call Human’s heart […] A Red Cross flag flew over the line of fire, in Holy Land!”[30]

The Iran-Iraq and Iraq-Kuwait wars

The ICRC’s role during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) is already quite well-known[31]. Among its numerous activities, it acted as a neutral intermediary. By the end of the conflict, less than 1’000 Iranian and 1’343 Iraqi prisoners had been repatriated. The main repatriations took place two years after the end of the war. From 17 August to 17 September 1990, more than 75’000 prisoners (37’861 Iranian and 40’960 Iraqi) were repatriated. More than 4’000 others were repatriated end of 1990 and in 1991. Repatriation operations continued until the early 2000s. Similar operations took place at the end of the Iraq-Kuwait war, with the repatriation of 70’000 Iraqi and 6’000 Kuwaiti in less than two months.

Moreover, work on missing people allowed the ICRC to act as a neutral intermediary between these various states. A first commission tripartite for the Iraq-Kuwait conflict was created in 1993. In 2008, following years of discussions, the ICRC, Iran, and Iraq signed an agreement for a tripartite commission related to the 1980-1988 conflict[32]. These activities continue and are still systematically mentioned in the ICRC annual reports.

The nineties

In 1990, the ICRC largely facilitated the conclusion and implementation of an agreement between the parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka to neutralize Jaffna hospital[33]. The Balkans endured several armed conflicts throughout the nineties. The ICRC played a significant role in these conflicts, including a neutral intermediary. For instance, in 1991, the parties to the conflict in Croatia mandated the ICRC to release prisoners and invited the organization to be part of a tripartite commission. End of 1991, the ICRC convinced the parties to the Serbo-Croatian conflict to neutralize Osijek hospital under its auspices. This agreement was extended in April 1992, even though incidents studded its implementation[34]. The ICRC is also mentioned in the Dayton agreement regarding the work on missing persons.

Sri Lanka. Jaffna. Medical evacuation to Jaffna hospital. 01/1991. ©ICRC/PIZER, Thomas. V-P-LK-D-00014-02

Croatia. Osijek. Hospital neutralized by the ICRC, but not respected. 03/1992. ©ICRC/PIZER, Thomas. V-P-HR-D-00005-18

In 1992, the ICRC opened delegations and offices in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the following years, while it was initially difficult to make the ICRC’s neutrality being understood, the organization could quickly set up some activities as an intermediary, for instance, the recovery of mortal remains or the simultaneous release of prisoners and hostages[35]. Some of these activities are still being carried out by the ICRC in these countries.

In 1994, in Mexico, Chiapas region, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary and facilitated the dialogue between the authorities and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), for instance, by transporting the EZLN delegates to the place of negotiation[36].

In 1996, the ICRC played a significant role during the hostage crisis of the Japanese embassy in Lima (December 1996-April 1997). It assisted the hostages, contributed to the reestablishment of family links (9’000 red cross messages were exchanged), and eventually took a pivotal role in the negotiations between the hostage-takers and the authorities[37].

Peru. Lima, Announcement of the release of the hostages. 01/1997. ©ICRC/RUGGERI, Andrea. V-P-PE-D-00006-22

The same year, in East Timor, following clashes, ICRC delegates went to the scene and acted as neutral between the authorities and civilians[38]. At the request of both the government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front, The ICRC transported under the protection of the Red Cross emblem representatives engaged in the peace negotiations taking place in Côte d’Ivoire[39]. The current or recent ICRC’s activities in Colombia as a neutral intermediary already started during the nineties. The organization contributed to the release of prisoners or hostages and facilitated dialogue and peace negotiations[40].

In Afghanistan, in November 1996, at the request of the parties to the conflict, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary between the Taliban and Commander Massoud’s forces and repatriated the mortal remains of several dozen of fallen combatants[41]. In 1999, following talks between parties to the conflict and upon their request, the ICRC contributed to the simultaneous release of detainees from both sides.


The ICRC as a neutral intermediary in the 21st Century

Main figures

The ICRC annual reports from 2010 to 2019 contain 283 individual occurrences of neutral intermediary activities. One must keep in mind that these figures do not reflect reality. First, they only mention publicly acknowledged activities and do not include activities that have not been publicized. Second, editorial choices are not always consistent. For instance, the work carried out by the ICRC for the missing of the Falkland war only appeared once over the past ten years. However, it is a prolonged and ongoing activity. Parallelly, similar work related to the missing of the Iran-Iraq and Iraq-Kuwait wars is mentioned every year. Therefore, the following figures are not exhaustive. Nevertheless, though incomplete, the annual reports help understand how the ICRC acts as a neutral intermediary in contemporary armed conflicts and other situations of violence.

Some contexts appear every year. These occurrences are linked either with protracted conflicts and crises or with activities related to past armed conflicts. For instance, the ICRC’s role as a neutral intermediary between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between Georgia proper, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, in Colombia, Israel and the Occupied Territories, or Iraq is systematically mentioned in the annual reports. Parallelly, the data show that the ICRC can sometimes act as a neutral intermediary shortly after the outbreak of a conflict. It happened at the outbreak of the conflicts in Yemen, Libya, and to some extent Syria in 2011, Ukraine in 2014, etc. These cases illustrate the ICRC’s ability to engage with parties to armed conflicts quickly.

Central African Republic. Signing of certificates between ICRC and Séléka for the release of 7 members of the Central African Republic army. 26/01/2013. ©ICRC/BEKOUROU, Romaric. V-P-CF-E-00712

According to the annual reports, from 2010 to 2019, the ICRC has acted as a neutral intermediary in 35 contexts all over the world.

Over the past ten years, the ICRC has acted as a neutral intermediary between two states in 133 occurrences. The figure is slightly higher when it acts between a state and a non-state actor, with 144 occurrences. We only found two examples where only non-state actors were involved, while 4 occurrences were either undefined or involving several types of actors.

While most contemporary armed conflicts are non-international, many activities between states might look surprising. Some long-term activities, such as the work on missing people, constitute the continuation of past armed conflicts. They illustrate the ICRC’s relevance in highly politicized settings, disputed territories, and other frozen conflicts. It can be a neutral intermediary between states, de facto authorities, or non-state actors in occupied territories.

The annual reports do not always indicate who requested the presence of the ICRC, especially when activities appear every year, and we did not retrospectively systematically check the information in the ICRC archives. Nevertheless, it is certain that in 44 cases, the ICRC used its right of initiative and proposed its services to the parties to a conflict. 37 requests directly came from the parties to the conflict. We eventually found one example where the request came from third parties.

Morocco. Agadir. Repatriation of 243 Moroccan prisoners released by the Polisario Front. 01/09/2003. ©ICRC/GASSMANN, Thierry. V-P-DZ-E-00047


Types of activities

The activities could be divided between long-term ones, the work on the missing being an excellent example, and ad hoc ones, such as repatriations of civilians or hostages. The following categories sometimes overlap, and their demarcation can be blurred. We use them for the sake of simplicity while being fully aware that they are too rigid and artificial.

Types of activities where the ICRC acts as a neutral intermediary the most. Source: ICRC annual reports

Reestablishing family links

Many of the occurrences fit within the general umbrella of activities carried out by the Central Tracing Agency. In 2016, the ICRC facilitated worldwide the transfer or repatriation of 1,525 people, including 63 detainees after their release, and the remains of 2,059 people. In 2018, it facilitated the transfer or repatriation of 1,098 people, including 219 detainees after their release, and the remains of 2,249 people. In 2019, as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC facilitated the transfer or repatriation of 1,185 people, including 244 detainees after their release, and the remains of 3,032 people.

In 2018, the ICRC offered to serve as a neutral intermediary between Eritrea and Ethiopia to help them address humanitarian issues linked to the past conflict. After the Eritrea–Ethiopia border reopened in September, the ICRC scaled up its activities to trace and reconnect people separated by the past conflict, as many of them lacked the means and/or the information necessary to restore contact with their relatives.

Support can also be administrative. The ICRC delivers official documents such as power-of-attorney documents, death certificates, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other types of documents across frontlines. In 2018, it delivered documents to 1,136 people and issued travel documents that enabled 1,372 people to return to their home countries or settle in a host country.

In 2016, the ICRC relayed 927 official documents of various types between family members across dividing lines and frontlines, for instance, between Georgia proper and South-Ossetia. Because of borders, front lines, and movement restrictions, people used the ICRC as a neutral intermediary to exchange news via Red Cross messages, to reunite with family members, to transfer documents, and to travel between the occupied Golan and the Syrian Arab Republic, between Lebanon and Israel and between locations in the Palestinian territory.

Ethiopia. Buses used by the ICRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society facilitate the transport of returnees to their families in Ethiopia. 24/05/2014. ©ICRC. V-P-ET-E-00209

Prisoners of war and detainees

Releases and exchanges of detainees or hostages are a global phenomenon that the ICRC has widely addressed. For example, in 2012, it facilitated the safe transfer to the relevant authorities of people released by armed groups, as in Mali, Senegal, and Sudan. Over the past years, at the request of all parties concerned, the ICRC facilitated the handover of civilian internees across the contact line between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the agreement of all the parties, it also facilitated the release and handover to the relevant authorities of people held by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2017, the ICRC participated in the release and transfer of people who had been held by the parties to the conflict in Ukraine. It served as a neutral intermediary in the simultaneous release and transfer of some 300 people held in connection with the conflict: 223 people were transferred to non-government-controlled areas, and 73 to government-controlled areas. Eventually, the ICRC regularly intervenes in Yemen, the vast repatriations of 2020 being the most emblematic example.

The full versions of these films are available on portal of the ICRC audiovisual archives: V-F-CR-F-00026V-F-CR-H-00188; V-F-CR-F-00650-A; V-F-CR-F-03038-B.


Even though only found few examples where hostages were released with an ICRC involvement, the actual figure is likely much higher. Most of the time, the annual reports do not distinguish this specific activity from other activities related more broadly to detention.

For example, in September 2011, 4 abducted Turkish engineers were released under the auspices of the ICRC in Afghanistan. The ICRC has also often contributed to the release of hostages in Colombia.

Missing people and mortal remains

Historically, the Red Cross and Red Cross Movement has been helping recover dead soldiers from the battlefield for decades. Over the past decades, the ICRC has played an increasingly important role in clarifying the fate of missing people and addressing the needs of their relatives.

Nowadays, the ICRC runs programs, acts and recently acted as a neutral intermediary in/between many countries: Eritrea-Ethiopia, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Iran-Iraq, Iraq-Kuwait, Georgia, Colombia, Kosovo-Serbia, Western Sahara, Ukraine, Sudan, Argentina-United Kingdom, etc. In its capacity as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC has several times encouraged the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front to clarify the fate of people unaccounted for from the 1975–91 Western Sahara conflict.

Acting as a neutral intermediary between Kosovo and Serbia, the ICRC chairs the Working Group on Missing Persons and its Sub-Working Group on Forensic Issues. He plays a similar role in the tripartite committees set up following the Iran-Iraq and Iraq-Kuwait wars. In 2018, joint excavations conducted by Iranian and Iraqi experts, with ICRC support, led to the recovery and repatriation of the remains of 461 people: 383 to the Iranian authorities and 78 to the Iraqi authorities.

It also happens that the ICRC hands over to families the mortal remains of combatants and civilians who did not go missing. In 2017, the Israeli authorities, following ICRC representations, returned the remains of some Palestinians – reportedly killed during attacks on Israelis – to their families. While the ICRC has regularly helped recover mortal remains between Armenia and Azerbaijan or in Colombia, it constitutes a prominent activity as a neutral intermediary in Afghanistan.

Evacuations & repatriations of civilians

The evacuations of civilians or wounded people constitute another essential category where the ICRC has been active as a neutral intermediary. The ICRC helped evacuate people wounded in clashes to medical facilities in Colombia. Over the past ten years, with the ICRC acting as a neutral intermediary, many people crossed administrative boundaries between Georgia proper and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, mainly for medical care.

In 2010, the evacuation of eight emergency medical cases from the occupied Golan to Damascus and nine humanitarian cases from Damascus to the occupied Golan was also facilitated by the ICRC. In recent years, the ICRC has helped people cope with movement restrictions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Hundreds of people have obtained medical treatment or reunited with relatives across administrative boundary lines.

Safe areas

Acting as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC sometimes helps protect people who are not or no longer participating in the fighting. In 2013, during violence in Jebel Amir, Sudan, some 600 people found refuge in a safe zone marked by flags bearing the ICRC logo, which the weapon bearers respected.

Immunity of the medical mission

In Colombia, several times over the past decade, remote rural areas had access to health services after the ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, obtained safe passage for mobile health units operated by the Ministry of Health (when necessary accompanied by the ICRC), or by ICRC staff when the security of national health workers could not be guaranteed. In Senegal, in 2011, here insecurity restricted movement, the Health Ministry requested that the ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, escort health workers, enabling them to administer necessary immunizations (17,133 doses), mainly to children.

Where and when necessary, the ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary between parties to the conflict in Israel and Occupied Territories, primarily to facilitate the movement of health workers. In Libya in 2012, the ICRC facilitated safe passage for the medical personnel treating the wounded. Patients and hospital personnel were offered safe passage out of Bani Walid. The ICRC eventually works to help ensure that weapon bearers do not occupy health facilities in Afghanistan.

Assistance and other services

Assistance activities are somehow related to the previous section on health issues. In 2019, in Ukraine, and in coordination with its partners and the relevant parties, the ICRC transported drugs and other supplies for treating tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to health facilities in some areas; roughly 16,600 people benefited. In Colombia, it facilitated access to and delivery of health care services many times. In 2012, the ICRC facilitated the entry into the Gaza Strip of eight truckloads of medicines/disposables from the Ramallah Health Ministry and over 300,000 liters of fuel for Gaza’s power plant, which helped ensure uninterrupted hospital services.

The ICRC also intervenes as a neutral intermediary to deliver other assistance or services. In 2011, it delivered across front lines products to treat plants that avoided water supply interruption for 3 million people in Bouaké and Khorogo, Ivory Coast.

Ukraine. On the road between Severodonetsk and Lugansk. An ICRC convoy brings food and medical aid. 19/09/2014. ©ICRC/ELMAZI, Herbi. V-P-UA-E-00119

Facilitation of general negotiations & support to the peace process

Eventually, it happens that thanks to its status and acceptance by parties to a conflict, the ICRC can provide support to negotiations between the belligerents or even peace processes. In Uganda, in 2013, with the ICRC acting as an intermediary, representatives of previously disputing communities engaged in dialogue and cultivated agricultural land together, easing tensions and enabling the safe movement of people. In Afghanistan, it also used its contacts and credibility to facilitate the work of others with purely humanitarian aims, such as medical NGOs, several times.

These negotiations sometimes aim at achieving peace between parties to a conflict. Colombia constitutes an excellent example. Over the past years, the ICRC has contributed to the peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), or between the government and the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común (FARC). For example, in 2017, it ensured safe passage for ELN representatives to and from Ecuador, where negotiations were taking place.

By carrying out other activities, for instance, those in connection with the search for missing people, the ICRC backed the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the political successor of the FARC, the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común.



The ICRC has acted as a neutral intermediary worldwide for more than 150 years in most of the conflicts where it has been or is still active. This long and rich history gives the organization a unique experience and legitimacy.

These activities cover the full spectrum of the ICRC’s mandate and mission statement. They constitute one of the outcomes of its humanitarian diplomacy. They contribute to the protection and dignity of people affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence. They also contribute to assist them.

The ICRC can act as a neutral intermediary thanks to the mandate given by international humanitarian law and its fundamental principles, particularly impartiality, neutrality and independence.

Though its role between states has historically been prominent, the ICRC talks to numerous stakeholders and can be a neutral intermediary between different types of actors.

There are no “good” or “bad” stakeholders and the ICRC talks to everyone; But it can only act with the agreement of all parties involved.

Above all, these activities are beneficial for many categories of people and stakeholders: civilians, including families of missing people, separated families or hostages; prisoners of war and detainees; sanitary personnel; consequently, all those who need health care, including wounded civilians, soldiers and combatants; etc.

In other words, requesting the ICRC to act as a neutral intermediary or accepting the services it proactively offers is a win-win deal for all parties involved.

Reflection and debates on the origin, evolution, and interpretation of the fundamental principles, including neutrality and impartiality, are necessary. The numerous examples mentioned in this contribution show that beyond academic debate and criticism, neutrality and impartiality are not empty or purely conceptual words disconnected from the reality of the field.

They give the ICRC legitimacy and make it possible for the organization to engage in concrete activities as a neutral intermediary in the field that are meaningful and beneficial.

Eventually, this is not only about the past and the present. The need for a trusted neutral intermediary will not disappear in the near or distant future, and the ICRC will continue to carry out this role in conflict and post-conflict settings.


[1] Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, adopted by the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross at Geneva in 1986, amended in 1995 and 2006, article 5.3,

[2] Gustave Moynier, Les dix premières années de la Croix-Rouge, Bulletin international des sociétés de secours aux militaires blessés, n°16, 1873, p. 228-229.

[3] Henry Dunant, Mémoires, Lausanne, 1971, chapters 26 to 32 ; Bernard Gagnebin, Le Rôle d’Henry Dunant pendant la guerre de 1870 et le siège de Paris, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, n°412, 1953, ; Henri Guillemin, Henri Dunant, la guerre et la Commune, La Nef : revue mensuelle illustrée, n°8, 1957, p. 68-74. See also : Frédéric Joli,La Croix-Rouge présente dans le premier photo-reportage de l’histoire ?, L’humanitaire dans tous ses Etats, 31 August 2020,

[4] Cédric Cotter, (s’)Aider pour survivre. Action humanitaire et neutralité suisse pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, Geneva, 2017, p. 47 sq.

[5] Cédric Cotter, “The 1918 Bern Agreements: repatriating prisoners in a total war”, International Law & Policy Blog, 29 March 2018,

[6] Aline Zuber, “The cross in the crosshairs. A photographic record of the bombing of Red Cross field hospitals during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war” Cross-Files, 4 January 2020,

[7] Damian Gonzalez, “The ICRC and the evacuation of children during the Spanish Civil War”, Cross-Files, 10 May 2021,  ; Damian Gonzalez, “La Guerre d’Espagne (1936-1939): déploiement et action du CICR en images”, Cross-Files, 1 April 2019, 

[8] CICR, Rapport du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge sur son activité pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale (1er septembre 1939 – 30 juin 1947, vol. 1, Geneva, 1948, p. 385 sq.

[9] Frédéric Joli, “Hiver 1944: l’étonnante histoire du navire Vega et du ravitaillement des îles de Jersey et Guernesey”, L’humanitaire dans tous ses Etats, 14 January 2022,

[10] François Bugnion, “De la fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’aube du troisième millénaire : L’action du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge sous l’empire de la guerre froide et de ses suites : 1945-1955”, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, n°812, 1995,

[11] Catherine Rey-Schyrr, De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu. Histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge 1945-1955, Geneva, 2007, p. 560-567.

[12] Audrey Gros, Cormac Shine, ICRC negotiations with North Vietnamese authorities regarding access to American POWs during the Vietnam War, 1965-1970, 2016.

[13] Isabelle Vonèche Cardia, L’octobre hongrois : entre croix rouge et drapeau rouge : l’action du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge en 1956, Bruxelles, 1996.

[14] Françoise Perret, François Bugnion, De Budapest à Saigon. Histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge 1956-1965, p. 161-170.

[15] Boyd van Dijk, “Internationalizing colonial war: on the unintended consequences of the interventions of the International Committee of the Red Cross in South-East Asia, 1945-1949”, Past & Present, vol. 250, n°1, p. 243-283.

[16] Catherine Rey-Schyrr, De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu, p. 343.

[17] Ibid., p. 348-349.

[18] Catherine Rey-Schyrr, “Les activités du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge dans le sous-continent indien à la suite de la partition (1947-1949)”, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, n°830, 1998, ; Catherine Rey-Schyrr, De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu, p. 405 sq.

[19] François Bugnion, “De la fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’aube du troisième millénaire”, op. cit.

[20] Thomas Fischer, Die guten Dienste des IKRK und der Schweiz in der Kuba-Krise 1962, Zurich, 2000 ;  Thomas Fischer, “The ICRC and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis”, International Review of the Red Cross, n°842, 2001,; Françoise Perret, François Bugnion, De Budapest à Saigon, p. 473-502.

[21] Françoise Perret, François Bugnion, From Budapest to Saigon. History of the International Committee of the Red Cross 1956-1965, p. 441.

[22] Thomas Fischer, “The ICRC and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis”, op. cit.

[23] Françoise Perret, “L’action du CICR au Yémen (1962-1970)”, Relations internationales, n°105, 2001, p. 77-90.

[24] François Bugnion, “De la fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’aube du troisième millénaire”, op. cit.

[25] Liliane Stadler, Between neutrality and solidarity: Swiss good offices in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1992, Oxford, 2021,

[26] All the information on these contexts come from: Jacques de Reynier, 1948 à Jérusalem, Geneva, 2002 (1950), p. 142: Catherine Rey-Schyrr, De Yalta à Dien Bien Phu,  p. 429-515 ; Françoise Perret, François Bugnion, De Budapest à Saigon, p. 85-104 ; Jean-Luc Blondel, De Saigon à Hô Chi Minh-Ville. Action et transformations du CICR 1966-1975, Geneva, 2015, ; Daniel Palmieri, “Le doigt dans l’engrenage : le CICR, Israël et les Territoires occupés, 1967-1975”, Revue suisse d’histoire, vol. 67, n°3, 2017,

[27] Jacques de Reynier, 1948 à Jérusalem, Geneva, 2002 (1950), p. 142.

[28] Ibid., p. 41-42. (Our translation)

[29] Jean-Luc Blondel, De Saigon à Hô Chi Minh-Ville, p. 62-63.

[30] Jacques de Reynier, 1948 à Jérusalem, p. 144-145. (Our translation)

[31] The information in this section come from: Daniel Palmieri, , “Crossing the desert : the ICRC in Iraq : analysis of a humanitarian operation”, International Review of the Red Cross, n°869, 2008,; Angelo Gnaedinger, “Le rôle du CICR dans le conflit du Golfe: potentiel et limites de la médiation humanitaire”, Moyen-Orient : migrations, démocratisations, médiations, Paris, 1994 ; Christophe Girod, Tempête sur le désert : le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge et la guerre du Golfe 1990-1991, Bruxelles, 1994.

[32] For more information, see:

[33] See:

[34] See:

[35] ICRC, Frontline : the ICRC in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Geneva, 1994 ; Jean-Marc Bornet, “Le CICR et les conflits du Caucase”, Le Caucase postsoviétique : la transition dans le conflict, Brussels, 1995 ; Marion Haroff-Tavel, “Les défis de l’action humanitaire du CICR dans les conflits du Caucase et d’Asie centrale (1993-1996)”, Relations Internationales, n° 105, 2001, p. 91-108.

[36] Jean-Philippe Lavoyer, “Les bons offices du CICR: le rôle du CICR comme intermédiaire neutre”, Fostering compliance in international law, Ottawa, 1996, p. 133-139 ; Béatrice Mégevand, “Entre insurrection et gouvernement. L’action du CICR au Mexique (janvier-août 1994)”, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, n°811, 1995, p. 107-121,

[37] Michel Minning, “Crise des otages de Lima : quelques remarques sur le rôle d’intermédiaire neutre du CICR”, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, n° 830, 1998,

[38] ICRC annual report 1996, p. 155.

[39] ICRC annual report 1996, p. 44.

[40] Thomas Jenatsch, “Le CICR, médiateur humanitaire dans le conflit colombien : possibilités et limites”, Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge, n°830, 1998, ; Sandra Borda, “Providing relief in times of war : the role of the ICRC in the Colombian conflict during the Uribe administration (2002-2010), Humanitarian action: global, regional and domestic legal responses, Cambridge, 2015, p. 400-422.

[41] ICRC annual report 1996, p. 131.