A porous humanitarian shield: The laws of war, the red cross, and the killing of civilians


An important literature examines the attempts by the international community in inducing or coercing conflict parties in civil wars to refrain from committing atrocities against the civilian population. We examine in this article whether a non-governmental actor, the distinctively neutral and independent International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mission includes the promotion of humanitarian law and the protection of the civilian population, has such a restraining effect on the conflict parties. Our results suggest that the more time has passed since the ratification of the relevant Geneva Conventions and Protocols, the larger is the risk of civilian victimization. We cannot find evidence that the ICRC’s presence in conflict zones and the seminars it conducts to spread humanitarian law make a crucial difference. Case studies of Bosnia and Darfur indicate that shaming strategies and thus a relatively unusual instrument for the traditionally neutral actor did not abate the killings; the statistical evidence in the form of Granger causality tests rather show that the killing and harming precedes the naming and shaming.

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  1. 1.

    Mission statement available on the ICRC website: http://www.icrc.org/HOME.NSF/060a34982cae624ec12566fe00326312/125ffe2d4c7f68acc1256ae300394f6e?OpenDocument (July 18, 2013).

  2. 2.

    Subsequent landmark developments in the evolution of the Law of War include the Geneva conventions of 1906, 1929, and 1949 as well as the The Hague (1899, 1907) conventions. Three protocols, which date from 1977 and 2005 respectively, have amended the 1949 Geneva Convention and have led to stronger legal protection of civilian victims of war.

  3. 3.

    Whether the ICRC is a strictly private or a hybrid international organization is subject to discussion (see Forsythe 2005). Although largely supported by states, since only individuals of Swiss nationality and not states are members with voting rights in the Assembly, the ICRC’s main governing body, we refer to it as a non-governmental organization.

  4. 4.

    Schneider and Bussmann (2013: 635), based on Eck and Hultman (2007) define one-sided violence as “lethal or harmful acts that an organized group, which can be either a rebel organization or government actors, directs against unarmed individuals. The aggression results in the immediate physical harming or death of more than one person.”

  5. 5.

    To protect its delegates, the organization refrained from calling the killings in Rwanda “genocide.” Former president Kellenberger (2004: 602) nevertheless insists that the ICRC acted decisively: “It would be hard to conceive of a more dramatic and urgent public appeal to the international community than that of 28 April 1994.”

  6. 6.

    However, a study found no evidence that an international criminal tribunal or domestic human rights trials had any impact on the recurrence of civil war or a country’s human rights record (Meernik et al. 2010).

  7. 7.

    Médecins Sans Frontières for instance had a world-wide income in 2012 of 938€, while the ICRC had a similar income in contributions of 1009 million Swiss Francs in the same year. See http://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/msf_financial_report_interactive_2012_final.pdf and http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/annual-report/icrc-annual-report-2012.pdf (July 18, 2013).

  8. 8.

    We drop Rwanda from our regressions as an outlier because of its high number of civilian victims but the results are robust if we include it in the tests. We also excluded the observation accounting for 9/11 as this is an event that does not take place in an internal armed conflict setting.

  9. 9.

    A modified Wald statistic indicated groupwise heteroskedasticity in the residual of the fixed effects model why we conduct our tests with robust standard errors clustered on the state.

  10. 10.

    http://icrc.org/ihl (last accessed May 30, 2014).

  11. 11.

    Missions are of a temporary nature and sometimes can be only a trip of a Geneva official to a country to establish first contact. Thus, our analyses do not include these missions.

  12. 12.

    The regional delegations typically attend to several countries in the region but are not necessarily heavily involved in each state. Besides, the yearly reports do not always distinguish very clearly among the various activities of the regional delegation according to target country. Therefore, we only consider the ICRC as active in a country if the regional delegation had its main office there.

  13. 13.

    All variables extracted from the ICRC annual reports were coded by two independent coders. The correlation for the presence variable was .88, for seminars .66, for participants .73. Divergent cases were individually verified and corrected.

  14. 14.

    We relied on ICRC press releases (only available for 2004) and news reports of Le Monde (who has a permanent correspondent in Geneva), Le Figaro (from 1990 to 2003), New York Times, and BBC Monitoring (1989).

  15. 15.

    Condemnations in the first category stand for defensive verbal conflict and summarize statements in which the ICRC uses phrases as reject, protest or deny. The middle category stands for offensive verbal conflict, with the organization accusing, demanding, warning or threatening the warring parties. The most intensive action indicates events in which the organization demonstrated or reduced its relationship in the conflict area in response to the actions taken by the conflict parties.

  16. 16.

    We describe the coding instructions in a related paper (Schneider and Bussmann 2013), which also includes a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of using newspaper reports for estimating how intensive the political violence is in a particular conflict.

  17. 17.

    We only have three observations in our whole sample with zero values, namely Moldova in 1992 and Eritrea in 1997 and 1999 why our tests with the dummy variable for ratification of the GC-IV-1949 will be of limited value only.

  18. 18.

    All test of robustness can be found in the web appendix.

  19. 19.

    In these tests the control variables in the model on rebel violence were highly significant underlining the importance of estimating with fixed-effects, which is however problematic in the negative-binomial model as too many observations drop out.

  20. 20.

    If a country had ratified the GC-IV-1949 already 10 years longer we could observe an increase in the log of OSV by the government of 0.3213 (SE 0.1204) which is, after the exponential transformation, the equivalent of 1.37 more civilian victims killed by the government and 0.0342 (SE 0.2073), or 1.03 more civilians killed by the rebels. Having ratified the additional protocol 10 years earlier would be related to a reduction of 0.1000 (SE 0.1879), or 1.10 fewer killings by government forces and a plus of 0.4676 (SE 0.3944), or 1.59 more civilian victims by rebel forces. Calculations of substantive effects are done with Clarify (Tomz et al. 2003). We had to base the estimation on a pooled model as panel estimation is not supported by Clarify. This did change some of the results of the control variables but not the main conclusions on our results for IHL ratification. However, the findings in columns 2 and 4 were no longer significant.

  21. 21.

    In different model specifications, e.g., controlling for an indicator variable for whether there was one-sided violence by the government in the previous year, controlling for one-sided violence by the rebel side, or for regime transition and collapse, years since independence, and type of political regime, these findings are robust. The ICRC variables show very similar results if estimated with a negative binomial model.

  22. 22.

    The 2SLS tests are based on instrumental variable (2sls) estimation using the ivreg2 command with robust standard errors and country dummies that had to be partialled out to have full rank. All additional test with potential instruments are reported in the web appendix.

  23. 23.

    We lag all independent variables by one year.

  24. 24.

    The ICRC conducted seminars in slightly more than half of our observations. We also tested the number of military/police personnel that attended these seminars whenever the respective information was provided in the annual reports. The variable was not significant, neither if estimated as an ordinal five-valued scale (with values from 1 to 5 if 1–9, 10–99, 100–999, 1000–9999, or 10,000 and more police and/or military personnel attended the IHL seminars).

  25. 25.

    Similar results to the ones reported in Table 4 could be obtained in Granger causality tests for series in which we used weekly data for Darfur. We also tested different numbers of lags.


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The article has profited from comments by the audiences at several conferences and seminars. We are especially grateful to Kristin Eck, Erik Gartzke, Michaela Mattes, and Winfried Pohlmeier as well as the editor and two anonymous reviewers for detailed recommendations. We would also like to thank the Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung for supporting our research under grant DSF 004/07 and Isabel Schneider, Romy Escher, Sebastian Kuhn, Marina Beielstein, Kristof Lintz, Ivo Sieder and Oliver Neumann for research assistance, and the ICRC for access to its library resources and a discussion with ICRC collaborator Dominique Loye about our results.

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Correspondence to Gerald Schneider.

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Bussmann, M., Schneider, G. A porous humanitarian shield: The laws of war, the red cross, and the killing of civilians. Rev Int Organ 11, 337–359 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-015-9233-9

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  • Civil war
  • Laws of war
  • Geneva conventions
  • International Committee of the Red Cross
  • One-sided violence
  • Compliance
  • JEL
  • D74
  • K33
  • K42
  • F52