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Doubts about Red Cross neutrality could hamper relief efforts

The Red Cross is accustomed to walking around political land mines, but this week it became one itself. The humanitarian organization has fiercely guarded its neutrality for more than 100 years, but the decision to evict South Africa's government delegation from its international conference here this week has provoked accusations of ``politicization'' of the organization.

The ouster of South Africa's government representatives was the first time ever that the organization has removed a delegation. And South Africa's retaliation -- the expulsion of 25 workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross -- is a strong signal that the fears of ``politicization'' may not be unfounded.

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In the long run, delegates are concerned that several other countries may now ask for the dismissal of those whose presence they consider inappropriate. Top contenders: Iran and Iraq, China and Taiwan, Israel and various Middle Eastern countries.

But the more immediate concern to many delegates is that their work may now become more difficult because the organization's neutrality may increasingly be questioned. According to Nada Slim, a Lebanese Red Cross member, ``Our neutrality is critical to what we do.''

What the Red Cross does depends to some extent on what part of the group one is talking about. And the complex links between its three separate bodies contribute to the organization's difficulty in remaining neutral.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is a neutral body with 3,000 Swiss-only employees worldwide. Its duty is to safeguard the 1949 Geneva Conventions governing the rules of humane treatment of prisoners of war.

The International Red Cross, which has just been officially named the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to accommodate Arab nations which object to the cross on the grounds that it is a Christian symbol, is primarily involved in aiding people during and after natural disasters. In many countries it is heavily government funded.

The League of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies coordinates the work of the national societies.

The international conference, which meets every four years, is the highest decisionmaking body of the organization. Its participants include delegations from each of the three Red Cross bodies, plus a government delegation from every country signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Each delegation has one vote.

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Even with its longstanding reputation for treating the victims of conflict, no matter what their political coloring, the International Red Cross has often found entry into war zones difficult. Lebanon is just one of many places where there has been intense debate over whether people detained in some camps were to be considered prisoners of war so that the International Red Cross could visit them. At various times, the Red Cross has not been allowed to enter some places: the French-Algerian war, Biafra, Yom Kippur in 1973, Afghanistan, Iran.

Like it or not, say observers, the Red Cross can hardly avoid politics today, because the act of defining war has become increasingly political and muddied since World War II. Yet defining a conflict as a war situation is often the deciding factor in whether or not the International Red Cross can enter an area and provide assistance.

Until now, the relationship with South Africa has in fact been relatively good. The Red Cross has regularly visited some 300 sentenced prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, one of South Africa's most prominent black nationalists. It has also been providing aid to 20,000 refugees from Mozambique in eastern South Africa.

Additionally, the group has acted as a go-between in Namibian (South West African) as well as Angolan-South African disputes. Because South Africa's expulsion of the international workers in Namibia, all of these activities will presumably now stop. The national Red Cross society, however, remains intact in South Africa. But its representatives point out that it depends heavily on the international committee for training and funding. One of the international group's most important jobs, they say, was training black volunteers of the national Red Cross society to be local leaders in black townships.

The weekend actions expelled only Pretoria government delegation's participation and voting in decisions made during the conference. The South African Red Cross Society delegation is still participating. In fact, according to Richard Schubert, president of the American Red Cross, the Red Cross group in South Africa is highly respected, even by those who voted against the Pretoria delegation's presence.

The vote to expel the official South African delegation was taken at the urging of several black African government delegations who insisted that because of South Africa's apartheid system of race segregation, Pretoria's participation in the conference was at odds with the group's humanitarian goals.

South Africa labeled the vote against it a clear violation of the group's statutes, which forbid the Red Cross becoming involved in political activity or debates. An angry Jeremy Shearer, head of the evicted delegation, declared as he left the conference, ``we are not the ones who are being humiliated today.''

Others agree. Said one black African delegate to the Red Cross, ``we tried to prevent this beforehand -- we tried to draw attention to the statutes. This will just make our work harder.''

Even before last weekend's blowup, there were worries about explosive political discussions. The hottest items on the conference agenda promised to be discussion about two additions to the Geneva Conventions. Some 10 years ago, two protocols were added to the four existing conventions, extending the definition of conflict to cover colonial, foreign, or racial regimes, and internal strife. The last of these, however, includes a reservation to exclude internal conflicts where one or both sides are taking part in actions of terrorism.

Most Western nations, including the United States, have so far failed to ratify the new protocols. This is because they fear that they will be forced to recognize revolutionary groups. The Red Cross insists, however, that without the broader definition that these addition protocols provide, it is being kept out of too many areas.

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