The Red Cross and Red Crescent are familiar symbols worldwide, representing humanitarian action and providing protection to those who endeavor to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict. The ICRC is active worldwide in conflict areas and other situations of violence in which the ICRC’s unique blend of humanitarian skills combined with a strictly neutral and impartial approach can bring relief and support to the victims of the violence. In these situations the institution regularly comes face to face with those who are fighting, or those who are authorized to use force to try to control violence. We refer to these actors as arms bearers: those individuals and organizations whose job it is to fight, either as part of national armed forces or as members of non-state armed groups, or who carry weapons to protect and police populations. The ICRC cannot avoid these actors, so how should it deal with them?
The ICRC’s answer is to employ former military and police personnel, both to be able to work with arms bearers and also to guide our thinking on how to deal with these important actors. Throughout the centuries, armed groups, be they national armies or non-state groups, have developed their own ethos, culture and even language, establishing values and behaviors which set them apart from the rest of society. Police forces likewise have their own distinct character and identity. These groups can be difficult for those with no experience of that culture to understand or to engage.
The ICRC’s Armed and Security Forces Delegates (or “FAS Delegates” as they are known, from the french Forces Armées et de Sécurité) are selected specifically to have the knowledge and credibility to do just that; to bridge the cultural divide between arms bearers and humanitarians. Prior experience as senior military or police officers in their own States builds a common bond between professionals in these fields and these specialized Delegates use this bond to form relationships which enable a dialogue. Once the barriers have been broken down, by establishing mutual trust based on shared professional experience, FAS Delegates can then explain the role of the ICRC and where necessary form the link between the ICRC’s humanitarian work and the actions of these groups.
The FAS Delegates not only understand the language and culture of the groups they work with, but also the operational challenges that arms bearers are facing. This allows them to analyse these challenges and to work with the groups to find practical ways to help them comply with international humanitarian law and other relevant international norms. These discussions are part of the confidential dialogue which is at the heart of the ICRC approach. The ICRC maintains strict confidentiality covering all of their dialogue with those taking part in a conflict, allowing all parties to discuss openly and share concerns, without fear of those discussions becoming public. The aim of this approach is to build trust and hence access; access to the victims of armed conflicts, who may need our assistance, access to sensitive places, such as places of detention, or access to key decision makers to discuss difficult issues, such as the treatment of civilians or the wounded. Access is essential to allow us to raise concerns and to help to change behaviors when necessary, to ensure respect for those affected by the fighting.
The role of FAS Delegates is not to train anyone in how to fight or to conduct operations. Rather, it is to remind arms bearers of the importance of humanitarian law in planning and conducting their operations and of their responsibility to comply with the law.
By doing so, the aim is to improve compliance with the law, and hence to reduce the impact of armed conflict and violence on the civilian population and those who are no longer taking part in the hostilities.
An important part of the ICRC’s neutral approach is that it works not only with State forces, but also with non-state armed groups. In many conflict situations around the world today we see non-state armed groups playing an important, sometimes decisive role and very frequently they are having a direct impact on the humanitarian situation. The ICRC is adapting to this growing challenge and has prioritized its efforts to reach out to these groups. The Armed and Security Forces Unit is at the head of this effort, working to develop analytical tools and methodologies to be able to understand the challenges and concerns they face and how we can encourage them to comply to the same customary norms that apply to all those who take part in armed conflicts.
In the US, the FAS Delegates work with US military units all over the country. This small team, based in Washington, conducts over one hundred engagements per year with the US military. They participate in exercises, address senior military colleges and work with operational commands to establish relationships that will enable an effective dialogue in the field. The ICRC is operating in every country where the US has deployed military forces and so it is in our mutual interest to be familiar with each other, and to work to understand each other.
For further information on the ICRC's dialogue with weapon bearers click here.
For further information on the integration of IHL with Armed Forces click here.