Since its founding in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been aware of the importance of keeping a record of its work and of its legacy – in the form of paper and audiovisual archives – to preserve the memories and knowledge of its past and to lay the foundation for its current and future work. Over time, the organization has amassed an outstanding and unique collection that encompasses its own history as well as the history of international humanitarian law and humanitarian action in general.
In January 1996, the ICRC decided to open its archives to the public in broad chronological sections at a time. By shortening the protective embargo on its archives, the ICRC was able to open the 1951-1965 records in 2004, thereby adding to the sources in its collection available for consultation by the public. From January 2015, the 1966-1975 archives will also be open to outside researchers.
According to the Rules governing access to the archives of the ICRC, revised on 19 September 2013, all internal documents (including the minutes of the ICRC’s decision-making bodies) and general records are to be protected for 40 years. Records containing personal or medical information, files, lists and general documents from the Central Tracing Agency, and the minutes of the ICRC Selection Committee are embargoed for 60 years. In general, such access restrictions are justified by the organization’s desire to ensure that it does not jeopardize its mission or the public or private interests of individuals assisted or protected by the ICRC. These restrictions do not apply to information provided to victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence or to their beneficiaries when that information concerns them directly; they are able to access such information without delay, in a long-term continuation of the ICRC’s assistance on their behalf.
Access to audiovisual archives (photographs from 1861 onward, films from 1921 onward, and sound recordings from 1951 onward) is granted depending on their content and on the category of user. Obviously, documents accessible to the public before being deposited in the archives remain so thereafter. The ICRC’s audiovisual material will be available for online consultation early 2015.
Given the unique nature of its mandate, the ICRC has a special responsibility to properly manage its archives. The countries that signed the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, i.e. the vast majority of States, have entrusted the ICRC with certain humanitarian tasks and have every right to expect that the organization will be capable of giving an account of its mission in the long term. The ICRC’s responsibility and moral duty to its beneficiaries – and its donors – compel it to put a system in place to document and relay its work properly in order to guarantee the integrity, reliability and accessibility of its archives and to manage them in accordance with internationally recognized professional standards.
The ICRC’s archives therefore strive for openness and ease of access, in particular for those interested in humanitarian law and action. In this regard, they belong to the international community. In 2007, UNESCO decided to include the archives of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency (established by the ICRC at the start of the First World War) in the Memory of the World Register. In summer 2014, the ICRC put all of its First World War documentation online via a portal granting access to prisoner-of-war files and records. In the coming years, the ICRC has plans to place all inventories and key documents online.
In January 2015, the ICRC is opening its archives for the period 1966-1975. Apart from the minutes of the meetings of decision-making bodies and organizational records, operational series will be available for consultation pertaining in particular to ICRC activities in the following contexts: the Mozambique and Angolan Wars of Independence; visits to security detainees in southern Africa (including visits to Nelson Mandela at Robben Island from 1967 and then at Pollsmoor); the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970) – a watershed for humanitarian action and in the work of the ICRC in particular; the conflict surrounding the independence of Bangladesh and involving India and Pakistan (1971-1975); the Vietnam War (1964-1975); the challenges involving political detainees in Chile and the ICRC’s work after the coup d’état of 11 September 1973; the “football war” between Honduras and El Salvador (1969); protection work for political detainees under the military dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974); the Cyprus conflict (1974 onward); the Six-Day War (1967); the Yom Kippur War (1973); and the internal conflict in Yemen. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive!
As for general documents, highlights include: the legal records leading to the adoption of the 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions; documents on the preparations for, organization of and participation at International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Istanbul 1969 and Teheran 1973); the amendment of the agreement between the ICRC and the League (the current International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) to determine their fields of competence (1969); relations between the ICRC and Switzerland during the debate on Switzerland joining the United Nations; and follow-up on compensation claims of victims of pseudo-medical experiments conducted during the Second World War (records from 1960 to 1971).
Generally, the ICRC’s archives spur discussion and questions on social science issues, especially those pertaining to political science and the history of diplomatic relations. Above and beyond charting the work of the organization itself in myriad contexts, its public records shed light and offer alternative perspectives on issues linked, for example, to violence in wartime, the sociology of detention, and the role played by humanitarian workers on the international stage. In this regard, the new batch of records to be opened in January 2015 increases opportunities for research into a plethora of subjects. In addition, the ICRC views the opening of its archives as an ideal opportunity to establish, or strengthen, cooperation with universities and other academic research institutions. It hopes that researchers from countries that were affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence in the 1960s and 1970s will come to ICRC headquarters in Geneva to explore their own heritage.