Red Cross at the Crossroads
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 19 Feb 1987, p. 278-288
Weber, George B., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A dedication of the presentation to the constituents of the Red Cross. A description of the extensive activities of the Red Cross. The mandate of the Red Cross. "The uniqueness of the Red Cross as a humanitarian organisation, here in Canada and around the world." "The importance of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the true role of the Red Cross in the process of today's socio-economic restructuring." A history of the Red Cross: how and why it was originally established and the changes it has gone through. The current situation of the Red Cross, and how it is funded. The role of governments. The agenda for The Canadian Red Cross Society. The need for the Red Cross.
Date of Original
19 Feb 1987
Language of Item
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Full Text

"RED CROSS AT THE CROSSROADS" Chairman: Nona Macdonald President


At this moment, in the comfort of this room, we are untouched by the chaos that prevails in so many corners of the world. Our guest speaker knows first hand about the suffering and deprivation of those victims of war, plague, famine and political upheaval. Perhaps it is time for us to take stock of the Red Cross, in itself an empire on which the sun never sets.

It is my view that, both at home and abroad, this organisation with its history and tradition is taken too much for granted. It is fortunate that one of Canada's contributions is its young, dynamic Secretary General. George Weber took on the appointment in 1983 at the age of 37-the youngest ever to hold this position.

He is responsible for more than five thousand employees nationwide, a budget of some two hundred million dollars, the administration of sixteen health and community services programmes in Canada, international disaster-relief operations, and the future development of the Canadian Red Cross.

Mr. Weber's affiliation dates back to his formative years when he joined the Quebec Division's Water Safety Programme. In 1973, he volunteered for a special International Red Cross relief operation in Vietnam. He then joined the staff of the Geneva-based league of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, serving as a relief officer and chief delegate. He was responsible for Red Cross relief operations and disaster preparedness in Rwanda, Mauritius, Cap Verde, Nepal and the Philippines.

In his role as chief delegate of the League, he negotiated agreements and consulted with senior government and United Nations officials, to improve relief operations in disaster-stricken countries.

In 1976, Mr. Weber returned to Canada to head the Red Cross Department of International Affairs. He was instrumental in organising major fund-raising efforts, including the India cyclone-relief campaign in 1977, the Boat People campaign in 1979, and the Italian earthquake-relief campaign in 1981.

He was promoted to National Director of Programmes, responsible for the development and co-ordination of sixteen Red Cross programmes in Canada.

For his superb achievements, he was the recipient of the Vanier Award as an outstanding young Canadian in 1983. In early 1985, he received the Toastmasters International Communication and Leadership Award.

Mr. Weber holds Bachelor of Education and Master of Arts degrees from McGill University. A deep-sea diver, he is the author of a number of publications in the field of exercise physiology. He is fluent in English, French and Spanish.

Now, recent developments, such as the suspension of the South African Government from the proceedings of the International Red Cross Conference in Geneva, and the Canadian Red Cross Society's growing dependence on funding, are signalling strongly the need for the Canadian Red Cross to reassert its fundamental identity. But let George tell it. Mr. Weber may we hear your perspective: "Red Cross at the Crossroads.'

George B. Weber

It is indeed an honour for me to have been invited to address The Empire Club. Although, I must say it is somewhat unsettling, knowing that seated in the room are members of the Red Cross Board of Directors and staff, who may never let me forget what I say today.

Before I begin my speech, I'd like to ask all war veterans in the audience to please stand up at their places, and remain standing.

Now, would everyone who has ever taken a Red Cross First Aid or Water Safety course please stand?

Would those who have ever volunteered for the Red Cross, are Red Cross employees or have ever made a donation to a Red Cross International appeal, a local Red Cross or United Way campaign, please join those already standing.?

And finally, of those still seated, if you have ever donated blood or received a blood transfusion, would you also please stand?

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure as Secretary General to dedicate my presentation to the constituents of the Red Cross. Please be seated.

The red cross is probably the best known and most easily recognized symbol in the world today. While many people are not fully aware of all the activities of the Red Cross, I think 1 can assume that it is known to most of you, either in connection with disaster relief, or as the promoter of the Geneva Conventions; as First Aid or Homemaker Services; or as blood-donor clinics or swimming lessons.

The mandate of the Red Cross is simple-to protect life and health and ensure respect for the human being. Yet, the Red Cross is complex due to its diversity and size. Let me briefly outline the three components of what we call the International Red Cross:

i) The International Committee of the Red Cross (or the ICRC) is an independent, Geneva-based body, composed of Swiss citizens and concerned mainly with victims of conflict and war;

ii) The League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is the federation of national societies, which also has its secretariat in Geneva. The League assists the societies in their development and co-ordinates activities such as international relief related to natural disasters; and

iii) 144 recognised national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies around the world whose activities in their own countries include for the most part, disaster relief, health and welfare.

Collectively, we are a family of some two hundred and fifty million volunteers and staff bound together by our common ideals and the seven basic principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

But rather than dwell on our structure and all our activities, I'd like to shed some light on two things:

1. The uniqueness of the Red Cross as a humanitarian organisation, here in Canada and around the world; and 2. The importance of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the true role of the Red Cross in the process of today's socioeconomic restructuring, thereby putting it in jeopardy of being lost forever.

Let me briefly set the scene. The Red Cross was born rendering First Aid on the battlefield of Solferino in Northern Italy 128 years ago. Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman founded the Red Cross movement after seeing forty thousand wounded soldiers left to die in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the time. He organised local villagers as voluntary First Aiders and laboured three weeks to relieve the terrible suffering.

Some decades earlier, Napoleon Bonaparte had spoken these heroic words: "Soldiers are soldiers and are meant to die." Yet, when Dunant wrote the book A Memory of Solferino, outlining a proposal for volunteer relief societies and an international treaty governing the care of the wounded, the ideas were enthusiastically embraced by the political and military leaders of the day.

By 1864, the Red Cross movement was well on its way. An armband showing a red cross on a white field had been devised as a protective symbol-the Swiss flag with colours reversed, in honour of Henry Dunant. Twelve nations had signed the ten articles comprising the First Geneva convention, the beginning of International Humanitarian Law, the guiding principle of which is that those not taking part in the fighting-the sick, wounded, captured, medical personnel, religious personnel, and civilians-should be respected and protected from the effects of armed conflict.

The Red Cross was originally established to provide voluntary assistance to the wounded of the battlefield and to army health services.

In the following century, however, two significant things happened: first, through the training of medics and paramedics, armies learned how to better look after their wounded; and secondly, more significant still, it became more and more difficult to enforce the respect for and to monitor the implementation of the Geneva Conventions, mainly due to the increasing use of destructive weapons, whether by accident, strategic necessity or even systematically, in outright defiance of human worth and dignity. This continues today in certain areas.

Henry Dunant was not a historian or a political scientist. He was a pragmatic businessman who saw a problem and dealt with it. What he did not foresee (even though history is full of precedents), is that, in time of major social, political, and economic restructuring, war or any other form of conflict, becomes an uncontrollable beast.

Man, woman, child, civilian, friend, enemy, religious personnel, atheists, sick or sound are all drawn into the same mess, where any atrocity can become anybody's strategic necessity. If you have seen the movie Platoon, you can appreciate that Vietnam veterans had this insight and some have not yet come to terms with it. And many survivors of the World War Il concentration camps are still feeling guilty for having survived.

Unknowingly perhaps, the Red Cross met its first crossroads in the face of the fury that broke loose in the first half of this century: the Russian Revolution, World War 1, World War 11, and the atomic bomb. The crossroads offered a choice between the total defeat of humanitarianism OR the maintenance of humanitarian effort, no matter how small in comparison with the magnitude of suffering.

During the First and Second World Wars, the Red Cross provided medical treatment to the wounded. We visited and tried to insure the humane treatment of thousands of prisoners of war. During both wars, the Canadian Red Cross raised money for medical treatment of the wounded, sent millions of food packages, provided clothing and relief goods for civilians and sent qualified medical and other personnel overseas.

And what was it that allowed the Red Cross movement to survive the convulsions of the first half of this century? Perhaps the insight that man-made disasters are natural disasters themselves; that it is not for the Red Cross to judge who is right and who is wrong; that, in steering clear of passing judgement, it cannot and must not ally itself with any party to a conflict; that by avoidance of passing judgement and forming alliances in conflict, it can mobilise those human forces that are not driven by desire to gain, but by desire to help. Only such independence can insure the Red Cross's credibility and effectiveness and can evoke the caring and compassionate side of our human nature.

Most of all, it may have been Henry Dunant's fundamental legacy that kept the Red Cross movement alive: that human suffering may have to be seen up close in order to be understood and to invoke an appropriate response to help; that the most important humanitarian transaction takes place on a one-on-one basis; that material help may often be essential but can never be sufficient; and that perhaps, from the personal experience of the helper, will grow a better understanding of the human condition and cures that are fully human indeed.

Equipped with the war experience, the Red Cross ventured into the second half of the century. In 1947, The Canadian Red Cross embarked on the establishment of a National Blood Transfusion Service, based entirely on voluntary blood donations; began extensive homemaker programmes in some provinces; trained millions of Canadians in swimming and water safety, helping to reduce the national drowning rate by half; provided tracing and reunion services to bring families together again; raised funds for victims of natural disasters or conflicts; and initiated a variety of other community programmes.

Internationally, Red Cross continued its humanitarian role, helping victims of volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, earthquakes and in conflict zones around the world. New and young Societies were established in developing and emerging nations. Throughout the '60s and into the early '70s, the Red Cross seemed to be proceeding well in expanding humanitarian work all over the world. Yet globally, something was happening, unnoticeably-something insidious, yet profound. For the first time, the world was facing the potential of total destruction. In the persistent shadow of this unimaginable threat, the global restructuring, which started in the first half of this century, is continuing-not with Big Bangs, but in an endless series of small eruptions of violence-with a loss of social values occurring simultaneously with a sharp polarisation of religious, racial, and nationalistic values; unprecedented affluence in Western industrialised nations in contrast with industrial slavery in underdeveloped countries; political block formation, and splintering of nations into small warring factions; economic equations dominating decision-making; "guerrilla warfare" in business competitions; and high suicide rates in the most highly industrialised countries.

No one can seriously believe that all this can take place without enormous human suffering. And if this were not enough, the world is experiencing a deadly disease, an epidemic of unprecedented proportions, that has already claimed thousands of lives in North America, and may claim millions worldwide.

Meanwhile, what has been happening to the Red Cross? Let's start with the international scene. Of the thirty-odd wars or conflicts going on, only one is actually conventional-the Iraq/Iran war. For over two years, the Iranian government refused to allow the International Committee to visit an estimated sixty thousand Iraqui prisoners. These visits fortunately resumed in December. On both sides, as you know, there have been executions, abandonment of wounded on the battlefield, and the indiscriminate bombing of towns and villages.

Since 1945, according to some peace researchers, there have been some one hundred and twenty wars or conflicts and as a result, over thirty-five million people have perished.

With respect to political prisoners, technically and according to international agreement, the icac has no legal role other than the right of humanitarian initiative and must try to negotiate its way on the strength of its good name, its neutrality and independence--and the benefits it can provide to victims of this kind.

Still in all, since 1945, Red Cross delegates have visited one half million prisoners not covered by the Geneva Conventions. These include iRA members in Northern Ireland, ETA people in Spain, Solidarity activists in Poland, and prisoners in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile.

But even when the ICRC is admitted by governments and guerrilla groups, its role is not always widely understood or appreciated. Red Cross convoys and hospitals are attacked; delegates are killed or abducted/the ICRC is constantly under the threat of expulsion, which has happened various times in Afghanistan, for example. This means only one thing: more suffering and no protection for the victims.

Then this past fall, it became apparent that the Red Cross was not just encountering a problem in applying humanitarian law, but that a problem had threatened to enter its own organisation. This happened last October at our International Conference in Geneva, a meeting held every four years of representatives from all three components of the Red Cross movement, plus all states (governments) signatory to the Geneva Conventions.

The participation of governments was a significant factor during this conference, because it was the Kenyan government's delegation that introduced a motion to suspend the South African government's delegation, although the South African Red Cross was allowed to remain. The real tragedy was not the motion, which one might rationalise as a result of today's political climate in Africa. The real tragedy was twofold: the result of the vote that passed with a majority (one hundred and fifty-nine for, twenty-three against, eight abstentions); and that the responsibility for this political vote was widely attributed to the Red Cross Movement (whereas it was basically a decision by governments). Fifty-two delegations, including The Canadian Red Cross Society and the ICRc did not take part in the vote, which we believed to be illegal and in violation of Red Cross Statutes and Principles.

The South African government responded by immediately expelling the ICRC from South Africa, where it had been visiting political prisoners since 1969, including black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, providing financial and material assistance to their families, helping in relief efforts for twenty thousand refugees from Mozambique, and assisting the South African Red Cross with its community programmes in the black townships.

What had happened? The Red Cross had endangered one of its fundamental principles: not to sit in judgement of those who are perceived to cause human suffering and thereby jeopardise the last remaining forum wherein the vital humanitarian link between all peoples is not affected by politics.

And what has been happening to The Canadian Red Cross Society? Today, a major portion of our funds comes from governments, mostly fees for the blood and homemaker services. The balance is from donations to United Ways and Red Cross campaigns across Canada. In looking critically at ourselves through a recently completed Directional Planning process, we have observed among other things, a need to increase public fundraising capability; to augment the number and effectiveness of services that can be provided by volunteers; to have more programmes that address pressing social problems; to de,:rease the focus on funded and cost-recoverable services; and to avoid the dangers of bureaucracy.

A steady stream of management techniques derived from the profit-making sector has flowed into the Red Cross: efficiency, productivity, short and long-term investment, marketing and feasibility studies-as in any major organisation, such as ours, with an operating budget of two hundred million dollars and seventeen distinct and diverse programmes that touch the lives of an estimated four million Canadians yearly.

Although there is a place for "business-like practices" in humanitarian organisations, the paradigms of private enterprise cannot be simply adopted without modification or maintaining a balanced perspective. The belief systems of the Red Cross must not be compromised.

This is another crossroad for the Red Cross: to uphold the true meaning of humanitarianism or to become a commercialised charity or a platform for political dispute; to become a dumping ground for government services no longer considered cost effective by the party in power; to rely on social responsibility payments from corporations and cater to the self-interests of the contributor. In other words, to become another shade of grey in a grey world.

Let us not be foolishly optimistic that all the political, social and economic problems and their victims will find their solution. Yet, all solutions will have to include the human desire to help. We must keep faith in the human capacity for service to mankind.

The real danger for charity and the Red Cross as a humanitarian organisation is perhaps best described by a simple statement made recently by one blood donor: "Blood is the only thing left I am donating freely these days."

So this then is the agenda for The Canadian Red Cross Society: get beyond the crossroads and continue our path into the 21st century by:

1. alleviating human suffering where it is found; 2. getting people to understand human suffering and not just through a TV screen; 3. resisting at all times judgement of those who may have caused suffering, including victims who bring it upon themselves; 4. getting people to help through money and material goods and, most of all, through personal involvement with those who suffer; 5. not building political and economic power through established services, alliances with economic, political or religious forces, and sources of funds associated with conditions inconsistent with Red Cross ethics; 6. ensuring at all times the responsible use of gifts and donations, be it money, blood, or personal time; and 7. doing everything possible to get our younger generations to know that humanitarianism is as important to security as material wealth or organised social welfare.

A naive, unrealistic and hopeless agenda? No, it is not. There are still thousands of people who help others when no one else would or could. There were the people who dropped everything to help when a tornado struck Barrie in 1985. The people who helped out at the evacuation centres during the train derailment in Mississauga in 1979. The people who helped evacuate residents of senior citizens' buildings in Saint John, New Brunswick, when gas leaks threatened imminent explosion last spring. The people who, regardless of critical news reports, arranged for food, shelter and clothing for the 155 Tamils who arrived in Canada in August 1986 under questionable circumstances. The people who provide a warm cooked meal for those unable to help themselves. One and a half million blood donors and donors prepared and committed to make a bone-marrow donation when asked.

Can the world afford to lose the Red Cross? The South African government recently reversed its decision and has now allowed the icRc to remain and to continue its work in South Africa. The icRc will actively support South Africa's right to participate in the activities and conferences of the International Red Cross.

Ladies and gentlemen, I firmly believe that the Red Cross chose the right direction at the crossroads during the world wars and will do so at our present and future crossroads to ensure that mankind will not lose gust, hope and confidence in the nobler side of human nature.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Robert L. Armstrong, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Red Cross at the Crossroads

A dedication of the presentation to the constituents of the Red Cross. A description of the extensive activities of the Red Cross. The mandate of the Red Cross. "The uniqueness of the Red Cross as a humanitarian organisation, here in Canada and around the world." "The importance of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the true role of the Red Cross in the process of today's socio-economic restructuring." A history of the Red Cross: how and why it was originally established and the changes it has gone through. The current situation of the Red Cross, and how it is funded. The role of governments. The agenda for The Canadian Red Cross Society. The need for the Red Cross.