Junod - Iconic delegate

Marcel Junod, was one of the most accomplished delegates in the history of the ICRC. He died a just over fifty years ago, on June 16th, 1961.

His time with the ICRC, from 1935 to 1946, gives an insight into the problems and contradictions the organization faced in those years with the emergence in Europe of totalitarian regimes that flaunted their complete disdain for the principles of human dignity.

Abyssinia, Spain, Nazi Europe, Hiroshima, Geneva

In 1935, at the age of 31, the young surgeon from Neuchâtel was taken on by the ICRC and dispatched to Abyssinia as a delegate, during the conflict between Italy and Ethiopia of 1935-1936. 

With fellow delegate Sydney Brown, Junod was confronted by the barbarity of this war, which was both a «classic» international conflict and the last colonial conquest by a Western power in Africa. He witnessed flagrant breaches of international law, such as the Italian air force’s bombing of hospitals and ambulances protected by the red cross emblem, the Fascist regime’s use of toxic gas on Ethiopian soldiers and civilians, and the use of banned weapons by the Abyssinian troops, dum-dum bullets in particular.

In 1936 Marcel Junod was sent to Spain, into the heart of a terrible civil war, from 1936 to 1939. This conflict and the political passions it unleashed made a deep impression on him. In Spain, he negotiated the first exchanges of hostages detained in the republican and nationalist occupied territories and played a decisive role in setting up the system for sending family messages between the areas held by the warring sides.

Junod became the ICRC’s Delegate-General in Spain, based first in Valencia and then in Barcelona. One of his successes was when, towards the end of the conflict, he achieved the release in Barcelona of 5,000 detainees whose lives had been in danger during the fighting that led up to the fall of the city. 

After the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Marcel Junod carried out several humanitarian missions in a Nazi dominated Europe or under threat of Nazi domination (including to Germany, France, Belgium, Greece, Scandinavia, Turkey and Britain). Inspecting several camps for prisoners of war and civilian internees and arranging for relief to be dispatched to famine-stricken civilians, Junod negotiated tirelessly with authorities of all kinds to ensure the application, as far as was possible, of the 1929 Geneva Conventions.

Sent to Japan in June 1945 with a mandate to assist and protect Allied prisoners of war in Japanese hands, many of whom were subjected to appalling treatment, Junod had the grim privilege of visiting Hiroshima just weeks after the atomic bombing of August 1945. He witnessed the terrible destruction of the city: «Towards midday a huge white patch appeared on the ground below us. This chalky desert, looking almost like ivory in the sun, surrounded by a crumble of twisted ironwork and ash heaps, was all that remained of Hiroshima.» (Le troisieme combattant/Warrior Without Weapons)

Marcel Junod left the ICRC in 1946, resuming his work in the medical profession until his death in 1961 with just one gap, during which he worked for children, notably with UNICEF. His career at the ICRC drew to a close with his appointment in 1952 to the ICRC Assembly, of which he remained a member until he died.

A witness to challenges still facing us today

Junod began his career during a war marked by the use of chemical weapons and ended with the horrors of mass destruction wreaked by the atom bomb. As both a witness and a participant in troubled times – and in a fast-changing ICRC – Marcel Junod is now part of the organization’s collective memory.

His journey reminds us of, and makes us face questions and challenges that are still urgent and relevant today, on issues such as respect for the Geneva Conventions and the red cross emblem, the protection of medical and health personnel and facilities in all circumstances and. Finally, Junod shows us the significance and limits of a delegate’s work in the field.

Marcel Junod was one of those who saw with his own eyes what the historian Omer Bartov has described as the 'gradual barbarization' of modern warfare.

In an obituary published in the International Review of the Red Cross in July 1961, Léopold Boissier, then President of the ICRC, said of Junod that he was «the most accomplished of the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I mean the most accomplished since, from the large host of those who have expended themselves and are still doing so, in order to come to the aid of the victims of wars and of internal disturbances, none had had such varied experiences with so many opportunities of displaying his qualities of abnegation, courage and humanity.

Guest post by ICRC in-house historian Fabrizio Bensi. Fabrizio and his colleague Daniel Palmieri will regularly contribute to Intercross to shed light on the history of the ICRC. Thanks Fabrizio!

Check this striking trailer for "Junod", a recent Japanese animation feature film that honors the author of "Warrior Without Weapons."