Silence. It's the best way to speak out

By Camilla Cavendish (THE TIMES, 14/12/06):

Christmas Appeals 2006

Oh, the agonies of 21st-century Christmas giving. Forget the simplicity of that big, red, India-rubber ball that A. A. Milne’s King John hoped for 80 years ago. Today’s version is non-toxic, fair-trade, preferably accompanied by an adoption form for four endangered calling birds, and by 12 drummers drumming out a protest against King John’s evil regime.

At this time of year we are, rightly, concerned to do good. But it can be hard to know how. Humanitarian aid and development consistently attract the biggest donations. But the well-meant goat has turned out to be a weapon of mass destruction. And many of the big charities are now complex campaigning groups, lobbying governments and mounting protests as well as relieving suffering directly on the ground. There is nothing wrong with helping to fund placards and logos about debt relief. But it is a different thing from distributing food to earthquake survivors, or reuniting a child in a warzone with his family.

Take Amnesty International, an old favourite of mine. Its campaigns became so powerful that they inspired the creation of many other anti-torture organisations. Perhaps this partly explains why the organisation increasingly pursues general issues, not just individual cases. It now campaigns over the internet on issues as diverse as domestic violence, the arms trade and freedom of expression.

Attacking Google for continuing to provide internet services in China strikes me as particularly odd. There was a cast-iron case for criticising Yahoo!, whose cowardly provision of information to the Chinese Government helped to jail two brave journalists, Shi Lao and Li Zhi. But the attacks on Google, whose misdemeanour was merely to have censored parts of a search engine that had been subject to repeated government shutdowns, look suspiciously like headline-chasing. Information is the best weapon against tyranny, and a little information is surely better than none. Amnesty is no longer just targeting those who abuse human rights: it is also criticising companies for not doing enough to promote human rights. That is much more questionable territory.

Many charities are blurring the lines of their original mandates. Most have persuasive arguments for doing so. But few seem to have resisted the temptation to measure their machismo by the number of fights they pick. One that has resisted is the Red Cross. In an increasingly politicised world, the Red Cross has remained neutral. By refusing to take sides in conflicts, it has always stood for the victims. This has historically given it access to places that other organisations cannot penetrate.

Today the Red Cross is the only agency that covers the whole of Darfur, for example. It is able to help all victims, not just those of a particular faction. Save the Children, one of the other big agencies, had to pull out of Darfur after some of its staff were attacked in clearly marked vehicles. The Red Cross is the only agency operating in much of northeastern Sri Lanka, where the conflict is escalating towards all-out war, and in most of the areas of communal violence in Nigeria. The Red Cross is still generally the first to arrive and the last to leave, and it seems to do so without much shouting.

Self-restraint, however, has never been easy. In the old South Africa, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was criticised heavily for not denouncing apartheid publicly. But many political prisoners said that the Red Cross visits were the only thing that saved them from madness or suicide.

Those visits would have been jeopardised had the organisation spoken out.

More recently, the ICRC was rebuked for not having made public its private reports to the US Government about mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But again, to have done so could have compromised the reputation for discretion that has won it access to some of the world’s most desperate people. There remains the question as to what would have happened had the reports about Abu Ghraib not leaked out. In 1942 the ICRC remained notoriously silent about the gas chambers, partly because it was sending food parcels to the concentration camps.

Today, once again, the principle of neutrality is under pressure. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the ICRC now sometimes travels in unmarked vehicles. Its staff are perceived by some groups to be part of the occupying force — a perception that was only deepened when Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, called humanitarian aid “an important part of our combat force”. Western armies have helped to muddy the distinction by distributing humanitarian aid. They are all white guys in white Land Rovers. It can be hard to tell the difference.

At the same time, there is more and more pressure to speak out. HIV/Aids is arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. In many parts of the world, the stigma about this condition is condemning millions to die. Many sufferers are urging the Red Cross to speak out, believing that its position gives it a unique power to change minds. There is a heated internal debate about whether it should. But would it squander its position by doing so? Is this really any different to any of the other momentous issues that have faced them over a century?

We are the sentimentalist society. We are supposed to get angry to show that we care. The world is now full of advocates, and that is a good thing. But sometimes, the best way to speak for those with no voice is to keep silent. Let us hope that the Red Cross keeps playing that lonely role.