ICRC, Under Attack from UN Watch, Defends Its Neutrality in Gaza War

UN Watch, a Geneva-based activist group that has repeatedly denounced the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, has shifted to waging a campaign against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), accusing it of “bias” against Israel and violating its guiding principle of neutrality in the Gaza conflict. The ICRC has told The Geneva Observer that the reports amount to “misinformation” that could put people in a war zone at risk, including aid recipients and its own staff.

UN Watch, a pro-Israeli group, has joined the Netanyahu government in condemning the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some of whose staff in the Hamas-run strip Israel says took part in the deadly cross-border attacks in Israel on October 7. UNRWA, led by Swiss aid veteran Philippe Lazzarini, has fired a dozen staff implicated by the still confidential Israeli report. Israel also says Hamas operates in tunnels under hospitals operated by UNRWA. A UN investigation is under way into Israel’s allegations, which have led some 20 donor countries to suspend funding, despite massive needs for 1.7 million civilians displaced by Israel’s invasion. 

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, issued a statement in December claiming that an analysis of ICRC tweets showed its “overwhelmingly skewed approach in the Hamas-Israel war in its social media.” “It’s failing to call out a terrorist group that systematically violates the Geneva Conventions and the principles of international humanitarian law,” he wrote. “The Red Cross claims to be neutral, but its public statements are anything but.”

“Harmful Narratives”

The ICRC, however, has held fast, rejecting the UN Watch statement claiming that 77 percent of its 187 tweets focused on criticizing Israel “expressly or by implication,” as well as charges that its approach favors Hamas.

“For us this piece is so problematic because independent journalists have cited the piece as if it were a rigorous and reliable report or study. But it’s not. It is a piece of advocacy that we believe distorts the truth,” said ICRC spokesman Jason Straziuso.

“False claims” included an ICRC tweet concerning an explosion in Gaza on October 17, which the UN Watch report characterizes as saying that “Israel attacked and destroyed Al-Ahli hospital,” he said. “But in fact when you read our tweet, you can see that it said no such thing. It says: ‘We are shocked and horrified that Al-Ahli hospital was destroyed and hundreds were killed. No patient should be killed in a hospital bed’,” Straziuso said, adding: “The ICRC has decades of experience in conflict zones and active war zones, we know not to rush to judgment about what may have caused an explosion because there are so many different possibilities. There is no blame contained in that tweet and it’s disingenuous of UN Watch to claim that there is.”

“Our concerns when it comes to these harmful narratives or misinformation or disinformation […] is two-fold,” Straziuso said. “First, in the category of people affected by conflict, harmful narratives can increase their exposure to risk. And secondly it can also impact our ability to operate in certain areas or to do certain things if there is false or manipulated information that is spreading,” he added.

More than 24 hours before publication, Neuer did not respond to requests for further comment from The Geneva Observer.

“Not an Easy Time”

UN Watch was founded in 1993 by a former US ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Morris Abram. For nearly the whole of its first decade it was “affiliated” with the World Jewish Congress, but the organization claims it is now “fully independent.” 

“UN Watch is not objective. UN Watch is not neutral, UN Watch is definitely pro-Israel. And you get a lot of false commentary out of UN Watch,” David Forsythe, a US-based political scientist who has just written a book about the ICRC*, told The Geneva Observer in a lengthy telephone interview. (*The Contemporary International Committee of the Red Cross – Challenges, Changes and Controversies, published by Cambridge University Press.)

The ICRC deploys aid workers in some 100 conflicts worldwide and has a humanitarian dialogue with 250 armed groups—including Hamas—ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger told the Munich Security Conference last week.

“This is not an easy time for the International Committee of the Red Cross. It is also not an easy time for me as a president of the institution which is 160 years old […] But forever we have been criticized for our neutrality, for our confidentiality and for not taking sides,” she said on a panel which included former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“What is new is the intensity with which these public campaigns are being led. And that is because of the tools that are available today—artificial intelligence, social media platforms. They allow different actors to amplify misinformation and disinformation about the role and the standing of the ICRC in no time and spread it across regions. And distort what we are and what we need in order to operate,” Spoljaric Egger said, speaking generally.

For Forsythe, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, the ICRC walks a fine line. “After October 7, there was a lot of criticism of ICRC on the Israeli side about the hostages [held by Hamas]. And I think most of that was unfair, much of that was misguided,” he said. “Because obviously the ICRC cannot force its way in to see the hostages against the wishes of Hamas, any more than the ICRC can try to force its way into Israeli prisons holding Palestinians where the Israeli government has blocked what had become normal [visits]to political prisoners or conflict prisoners.”

Hostage Releases

The ICRC has facilitated the transfer of two groups of hostages held by Hamas in exchange for some Palestinian detainees released by Israel. “Our baseline here is that we have been advocating for the hostages’ release, we have been advocating to be able to visit the hostages, to bring the hostages medicines and for the hostages to be allowed to communicate with their family members,” Straziuso said. “We have been advocating for all of those actions in public and in private with Hamas, in meetings with Hamas at multiple levels including the very top level at a meeting with the head of their political wing [Ismail Haniyeh] and President Spoljaric that took place in Qatar in November.”

Another point of attack by UN Watch was the ICRC’s decision to bring back Pierre Kraehenbuehl, who quit as head of UNRWA in 2019, after five years leading the organization, following an investigation into allegations of misconduct. Preliminary findings did not reveal evidence of “fraud or misappropriation of operational funds” by the Swiss aid veteran, according to the UN at the time, but there were “managerial issues” that needed addressing.

Kraehenbuehl was apppointed head of ICRC’s Beijing office in 2021 by former ICRC President Peter Maurer, before returning to Geneva as secretary-general of the Assembly. In April 2024 he is expected to take up the role of Director-General, the agency’s number two post.

The ICRC statement at the time of Kraehenbuehl’s appointment said that he had been “cleared” by the UN and that it had done its own “due diligence” on rehiring him. Spoljaric Egger is known to have sounded out US reaction to the most recent appointment, other sources told The Geneva Observer.

“The ICRC is not popular in Israel right now, either with the government or the public opinion,” said Forsythe. “And it’s in that context that then you have this discussion of the relationship between the ICRC and UNRWA. Because this is just another point on which to beat up on UNRWA, but it also involves criticizing the ICRC for bringing Kraehenbuehl back in a leadership position,” Forsythe said.

Neuer, a Canadian lawyer, voiced outrage in December at Kraehenbuehl’s “inappropriate” appointment and called for the ICRC to rescind it.

Straziuso, asked about donor reaction to UN Watch’s crusade against the ICRC, said that the agency had a deep relationship with major donors and indicated that there had not been a backlash. “That deep, long-term relationship helps donors understand what it is that we are trying to accomplish and the difficulties that we face, especially when neutrality is questioned. Especially when misinformation is spread,” he said. 

“Moral Defeat”

The ICRC has had a fraught relationship with successive Israeli governments, including over ICRC’s position that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to Israel as the “occupying power” in Gaza. It also carries a burden of not having spoken out about Nazi Germany’s extermination of Jews.

Forsythe commented: “They knew there was a genocide, and they [did not speak out] in public in 1942, when they had a big debate about whether they should speak out or not. And perhaps even worse they never developed a dynamic, quiet diplomacy to challenge what the Nazis were doing, on a quiet, bilateral basis.”

In May 1995, in remarks marking 50 years since the end of World War Two, Cornelio Sommaruga was the first ICRC president to publicly recognize that its failure to speak out during the Holocaust was a “moral defeat.” He regretted its “possible omissions and errors of the past.”

“We have taken another look at our own share of the responsibility for the almost complete failure by a culture, indeed a civilization, to prevent the systematic genocide of an entire people and of certain minority groups,” said Sommaruga, who died in Geneva last weekend at age 91.