Vol. 3. (2006) "1956 Hungary" No. 3. pp. 28-40.
The ICRC’s operations in Hungary between 1956 and the 1960s
It is the role of the ICRC, in its capacity as a neutral institution, to take special action in time of war, civil war or internal disturbances, in order that the military and civilian victims of such conflicts, and their effects, may be given protection and assistance. The following is an account of the efforts made to this humanitarian end in the course of the Hungarian revolution. The aim of this study is to describe and to chronicle the action conducted by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) during and after the revolution.
On the base of the division of Vončche Cardia I intend to describe the ICRC’s activities in Hungary distinguishing between three separate periods:
1.) The ICRC’s operations during the insurrection (27 October – 11 November 1956)
2.) The setting up and the installation of ICRC delegation in Vienna and Budapest (November 1956- June 1957)
3.) Delegates’ Temporary Mission in Hungary (1958-1962)
I. The ICRC’s operations during the insurrection (27 October – 11 November 1956)
Relief supplies: Airlift between Vienna and Budapest
Four days after the revolution began, on 27th of October 1956, the Hungarian Red Cross sent an appeal to the ICRC requesting blood plasma, blood transfusion equipment and bandages. After arrangements had been made with the Swiss authorities and the Swiss Red Cross the Committee chartered a plane with a crew of volunteers. The next day the aircraft loaded with relief supplies and bearing the red cross emblem, with a delegate of the ICRC on board, left Kloten for Vienna. From Vienna to Budapest two Hungarian aircraft – also laded with supplies- were to escort the plane. On Monday, on 29th of October, the first ICRC consignments arrived in Budapest. The following days the ICRC airlift continued satisfactorily and on 30th of October the Hungarian Red Cross announced that it had already received 90 tons of blood plasma, dressing, medicaments, foodstuffs and blankets for which it was very grateful.
The delegates of the ICRC made several journeys by air between Vienna and Budapest to accompany relief consignments. Thanks to the visits of the wounded of the conflict the ICRC endeavoured to expand the actions.
On 31 October on its sixth flight, the ICRC aircraft was obliged to turn back, when on its way to Budapest, as permission to land had not been given. From that time onwards the Budapest airport could no longer be used. The airplane remained in Vienna in case the sending of supplies might again be made possible, but the route was no longer open. On 3rd of November the ICRC finally decided to send back the aircraft to Switzerland.
Protection of victims and delegates
When the Hungary’s airports were closed by Soviet troops, the ICRC immediately encouraged its delegates in Hungary by regularly broadcasting the following appeal on its own wavelength:
a time when the International Committee of the Red Cross, in conjunction
with the principal National Red Cross Societies, is endeavouring to give
Hungary, so sorely tried, the charitable aid the country requires, it
wishes to recall several fundamental principles contained in the Geneva
Conventions by which all peoples are bound.
Before broadcasting this text there was no consent on the necessity of the appeal. The Executive Director of the ICRC, Robert Gallopin, consulted the delegates in Hungary to see if the Committee ought to issue a formal appeal to the belligerent forces to respect the rules of humanity embodied in the Geneva Conventions. René Bovey, in Budapest, felt it was not worth the trouble in the current situation. Herbert-Georges Beckh believed an appeal was requiring.
The ICRC also sent a memorandum to the Hungarian and Soviet authorities, asking them to grant its delegates in Hungary every facility in their humanitarian work. „In taking these steps, the ICRC expressed no opinion as to the status of the conflict in legal terms, its main concern being to protect and assist the victims insofar as it could and was allowed to do so.”
Beside the appeals and telegrams, the ICRC headquarters did not undertake any other measures focusing in protection, leaving that area of activity to its delegates.
Agreement between the ICRC and the League
The ICRC, working together with the League of Red Cross Societies, decided that an agreement was needed to demarcate their respective responsibilities. On November 2 the agreement was concluded. It specified that the international relief action in Hungary would be carried out by the ICRC, while the League would assemble and sort, in Vienna, the relief consignments received from National Red Cross Societies on behalf of the Hungarian people. In addition, the agreement provided that the Austrian Red Cross would be responsible for assisting refugees.
ICRC appeal for a truce
The borders were closed when Soviet tanks intervened for the second time. As a result, the ICRC convoys were no longer authorized to pass and the ICRC had no news of its delegates.
The situation having become serious, on November 4, the Hungarian Red Cross appealed to the ICRC during the last telephone calls from Budapest to intervene in order that the provisions of the Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians should be applied during the fighting which was then going on in the capital.
The ICRC immediately launched a father appeal to the Hungarian and the Soviet authorities. At the same time it broadcasted a message to the responsible leaders and combatants in Budapest, asking for the conclusion of an armistice to enable the wounded of recent combats to be collected and cared for. This message was sent out by the ICRC in accordance with the provisions of Article 15 of the first of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Below is the appeal:
„The International Committee of the Red Cross makes a solemn appeal to commanders and combatants in Hungary: The International Committee of the Red Cross is informed that combats are still raging in Budapest, and that numerous wounded have not yet been collected and cared for. It makes an urgent appeal to commanders and combatants to call a truce by mutual agreement in order that the wounded may be collected and evacuated. The present appeal is made by the ICRC in accordance with the provisions of Article 15 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
„The course of the relief action was thus closely linked to the political events that were rocking country. The Hungarian and Soviet authorities accepted the ICRC’s presence except at crucial moments of the uprising and the repression that followed it.”
Operations from Vienna: the forwarding of relief supplies
After the fall of Budapest and the occupation of airports the prompt action was more and more necessary and the ICRC’s delegates had to find an alternative overland solution in a short time.
On 6th of November the President of the ICRC also appealed to the President of the Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR. Recalling the principles of the ICRC the President stressed on the need for the consignments to be dispatched and distributed at the earliest moment. The President underlined that land convoys were being prepared in Vienna to take the road to Hungary.
On 8th of November the preparations were completed. The ICRC’s units and its delegates had very adventurous days. The convoy arrived at the Hungarian frontier on 8th of November, but they were held there for 3 days. They had the permission to cross the frontier only on 11th of November morning and the first ICRC relief convoy penetrated into Hungarian territory at 11.00 am. and continued its way to Budapest.
From that time onwards, all convoys under the ICRC’s responsibility were allowed to enter Hungary, relief supplies were also shipped by the Danube.
Between November 9, when the first column was dispatched, and 4th of December, sixteen journeys were made to and fro between Vienna and Budapest, enabling the transport of 570 tons of relief supplies; 1057 tons of flour were sent by river. By 31st of December over 6300 tons of sundry relief supplies had been handed over to the ICRC delegates in Budapest, who supervised their distribution by the Hungarian Red Cross.
During the first phase of its actions the ICRC intervened almost simultaneously in several spheres. It organized the dispatch of aid, worked to protect victims of the conflict, and dealt with requests for information concerning the refugees, all at the same time. The ICRC fulfilled its mandate, even though neither the Hungarian nor the Soviet authorities facilitated its task, and the Hungarian Red Cross, then in the process of reorganizing, was unable to provide the support needed.
II. The Installation of the ICRC in Vienna and Budapest (November 1956- June 1957)
Agreement between the ICRC and the Hungarian Red Cross
At the beginning of the second phase of the relief action, the ICRC gave to its Executive Director, Roger Gallopin the task of making contact in Austria with the new leaders of the Hungarian Red Cross.
On 16th of November 1956, the ICRC and the Hungarian Red Cross finally signed an agreement, which was ratified the very same day by the Hungarian Minister, by authority of the Hungarian government.
The terms of the agreement were as follows:
1) The International
Committee of the Red Cross assumes the control of the distribution in
Hungary of relief supplies for the Hungarian population which have been or
which will be entrusted to it by national Red Cross Societies, either
directly or through the intermediary of the League of Red Cross Societies.
Following the signing of the agreement, the ICRC dispatched another delegate to Budapest, who was specially entrusted with the task of drawing up plans for the most urgent needed assistance, in cooperation with the Hungarian Red Cross. He was also asked to prepare a list of requirements in Budapest and the provinces.
In June 1957 the body of the professors heading the Hungarian Red Cross was dissolved and replaced by government appointees.
The ICRC sent additional delegates to back up its staff in Vienna, where relief supplies were arriving without any prior coordination, thus causing considerable confusion.
The plan for supplying foodstuffs to Hungary
On the basis of the agreements the ICRC drew up a food programme. This favoured 175.000 children under 6 years of age among whom powdered milk and cod-liver oil were distributed, as well as children from 6 to 16 years of age were provided a daily hot meal. The third part of the programme concerned gift parcels to persons in distress.
Assistance to Refugees
The ICRC’s function with respect to refugees was to collect and convey news between refugees an their relatives, and to reunite families that have been separated. To help the refugees the ICRC took various measures. For example, it began to broadcast over Radio-Intercroixrouge the names of people seeking news of their families. It then set up a central card index for Hungary, which was operational from the beginning of 1957.
The assistance to refugees was the concern, firstly of the Austrian Government, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Inter Governmental Committee for European Migration, and, secondly, of the Austrian Red Cross, supported by the Red Cross movement through the world.
The ICRC’s relationship with the United Nations
The agreement between the ICRC and the Hungarian Red Cross mentioned the possibility of assuming the control of the distribution of relief supplies entrusted to the International Committee through the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
On December 4, 1956 the Deputy Director of the European Office of the United Nations sent a letter to the President of the ICRC. The director asked the ICRC to co-operate with the United Nations in his humanitarian programme. The letter contained the conditions under which the collaboration could be realised. On the same day ICRC answered to the Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjoeld accepting to take responsibility for the relief supplied by the United Nations as well.
After the correspondence between the two international organisations the President of the ICRC concluded an agreement with the United Nations on 4th of December 1956, whereby the ICRC assumed responsibility for the distribution in Hungary of relief given by the United Nations to the people of that county in accordance with the resolution of the General Assembly meeting November 9.
The agreement read as
Rutishauser, the National Councillor, was appointed as the General-Delegate for the relief action in Hungary. Under his leadership the delegation continued to pursue the relief programme in 1957.
III. Delegates’ Temporary Mission in Hungary (1958 – 1962)
After closing its delegation in Vienna and Budapest at the end of June 1957, the ICRC wanted to continue its activities in aid of Hungary. Accordingly, in early 1958 it began to send delegates to the country on temporary missions. The mission maintained in Hungary was composed of five members, under the direction of Mr. E. Fischer. To attend to winding-up of the relief action an agreement for this purpose was concluded on June 27, 1957 between the Ministry of Public Health, the Hungarian Red Cross and the ICRC. The time limit for the operations was prolonged more times.
This period, the Hungarian Red Cross that, since November 1956, had been presided over by five professors of the Faculty of Medicine, had been reorganized.
The ICRC prolonged its relief action not only for the purpose of assisting the victims of the conflict, but also- and especially- to maintain a presence in Hungary. It hoped that it might thus gain the opportunity to perform its traditional function. The ICRC expected that if maintained contact with the Hungarian authorities it might manage to persuade them to authorize visits to political detainees. To keep this foothold in Hungary, then, it continued its relief activities in three spheres: the winding-up of the relief action, the construction of a prosthesis factory, and new material relief programmes.
Simultaneously with its relief action, the ICRC exercised its protective function. It sought to render assistance to political detainees, for whom it made every effort, then to medical personnel, and finally to persons who had been convicted and faced execution.
The ICRC asked several times the Hungarian government if the delegation could visit the detainees but it had not obtain permission. The Hungarian Red Cross had the opportunity to visit the Vac and Kalocsa prisons, and reported that the treatment of female detainees in Kalocsa prison was perfectly satisfactory. The ICRC repeated its request in 1963 in vain. In 1964 the ICRC finally received permission to visit a prison. The ICRC never managed to see a single person who had been arrested for his or her participation in events of 1956. This can be considered a real failure from the ICRC point of view.
The ICRC did not become involved in the problem of family reunification on its initiative, but at the request of the governments involved, primarily the Hungarian government. In 1956, Hungary asked the ICRC to take steps to promote the repatriation of all minor children who had taken refuge abroad. During the last phase of its action, the ICRC was still working on the problem, but without much success. The Hungarian Red Cross disregarded the question of emigration and gave priority to repatriation.
In November 1957 the opposition between the ICRC and the Hungarian government was brought before the XIXth International Conference of the Red Cross in New Delhi. The Resolution XX urged all National Societies and governments to "intensify their efforts … and to facilitate by every means the reunion of persons, both adults and children, with their families in accordance with the wishes of such persons, and in case of minor children in accordance with the wishes of the recognized head of the family no matter where domiciled".
No global solution was found during 1959. The High Commission for Refugees asserted that certain repatriated refugees had been arrested and prosecuted.
Between 1960 and 1962 the ICRC handled several cases of family reunification, but no general measures could be applied. Instead, it solved individual problems case-by-case basis in response to requests from the High Commissioner for Refugees or the people involved.
In short, the ICRC never managed to achieve a general agreement governing family reunification, and its role as an intermediary between Hungary and the countries of asylum was useful only in a few isolated cases. This represented an other failure for the ICRC in the protection sphere.
IV. The problem of the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the Hungarian conflict
The ICRC is able to intervene in Hungary by virtue of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The Conventions were ratified by Hungary on 3 August 1954 and by the USSR on 10 May 1954.
The four Conventions are applicable only during international armed conflicts. Only article 3 common to the Conventions is properly applicable to non-international conflicts. It has a fairly wide scope.
The ICRC must face the problem of determining the nature of the conflict.
The ICRC states that in certain aspects the events in Hungary present the characteristics of an international conflict between two Parties – the USSR and Hungary- bounded by the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
This was the justification for the ICRC’s request in telegram of 4th of November to the Governments of these two countries concerning the practical application of these Conventions:
„Given current events Hungary and in accordance with its traditional mission International Committee Red Cross asks your Government practical application four Geneva Conventions 1949 for protection wounded war prisoners and non-combatants ratified by 58 States including USSR and Hungary stop International Committee ready assume tasks provided for it by these Geneva Conventions and offers its help for any humanitarian action considered useful stop…”
The Governments of Budapest and Moscow didn’t respond to this request.
In numerous many other aspects the hostilities in Hungary called for the application of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, an article that is valid for non-international conflicts. In the appeal broadcasted to Hungary by radio on 31st of October 1956, the ICRC referred merely to certain fundamental principles of the Geneva Conventions, principles that in the main corresponded to those laid down in the aforementioned Article 3.
„In light of all this and the necessity of basing the Committee’s action on the principles giving it the greatest chance of effectiveness, the Division of General Affairs considers that the measures to be undertaken with respect to participants in the fighting who have fallen in to the hands of the adversary in Hungary must be based above all on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. It is understood, however, that the guarantees provided by that article must be considered as a minimum in the case of Hungary.
We must underline, moreover, that this acknowledgement of Article 3 as the most appropriate legal basis for action must in no way be considered to constitute an exact legal definition of the conflict in Hungary; such a definition is not currently necessary for humanitarian action.”
Article 3, which is common to all four Conventions, is one of their most important articles. It marks a new step forward in the unceasing development of the idea on which the Red Cross is based, and in the embodiment of that idea in the form of international obligations. To borrow the phrase of one of the delegates, the article 3 is like a „Convention in miniature”.
„Art. 3. In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities,
including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those
placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause,
shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse
distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or
wealth, or any other similar criteria.
V. The valuation of the ICRC activity
The events and facts described in this study show that the ICRC played a key diplomatic role. Of all the world organizations – including the United Nations- only the ICRC was authorized to intervene in Hungary following the events of 1956.
It was successful in the provision of material aid, but its possibilities were essentially limited in sphere of protection. At the same time, we have to mention the weaknesses that marred the operational strategy adopted by the organization’s base in Geneva.
One of the major dilemmas of the ICRC was the determination of the nature of the conflict. As noted, the Hungarian affair bore some of the hallmarks of an international conflict, but “the hostilities in Hungary called rather for the application of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, an article that is valid for non-international conflicts”. In fact, the ICRC considered that the implementation of this article would serve to guarantee that a certain minimum of humanitarian principles was respected, making an exact legal definition of the conflict unnecessary for the time being but keeping such an option open for future.
Vončche Cardia, Hungarian October, Between Red Cross and Red Flag, The 1956 action of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1999
Perret, ICRC operations in Hungary and in the Middle East in 1956, International Review of the Red Cross No 313
ICRC report on the relief action in Hungary
Annual Report, ICRC, 1956
Annual Report, ICRC, 1957
Commentary I Geneva Convention, International Committee of the Red Cross, 1952, p. 38.
Csillag Zoltán, Adatok a Vöröskereszt Nemzetközi Bizottsága (IKRK) és a Magyar Vöröskereszt (MVK) 1956-57-es tevékenységéről
Hantos János, A Magyar Vöröskereszt 100 éve, 1981
Pásztor Imre, A magyar és a nemzetközi Vöröskereszt múltjából, 1969
 Judit Gyurcsán is a PhD-student of the Pazmany Peter Catholic University
 Vončche Cardia, Hungarian October, Between Red Cross and Red Flag, The 1956 action of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1999, p. XVII.
 ICRC, Annual Report 1956, p.6.
 Perret, ICRC operations in Hungary and in the Middle East in 1956, International Review of the Red Cross No 313, p.414.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 26.
 ICRC report on the relief action in Hungary, p. 7. Internal note by Jean-Pierre Maunoir, dated 19 September 1956 - ICRC Archives, file No. 200 (65), in: Perret p. 415.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 27.
 Perret, op.cit. p. 415.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 26.
 Annual Report, 1956, p. 17.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 29.
 Perret, op.cit. p. 417.
 Minutes of the ICRC Presidential Council’s meeting of 22 November 1956, ICRC Archives.
 see paragraph (2)
 Annual Report 1957, ICRC, p. 13.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 59.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 59.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 67.
 Annual Report, 1957, p. 44.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 72.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 85.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. Annex VIII.
 R.J. Wilhelm, Dossier Note, 12 November 1956.
 Commentary I Geneva Convention, International Committee of the Red Cross, 1952, p. 38.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. 2.
 Vončche Cardia, op.cit. p. XIII.