Red Cross

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated



Formally known in the early twenty-first century as the International of Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Red Cross is the largest humanitarian network in the world, active in almost all countries. The movement is made up of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (formerly the League of Red Cross Societies), and the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. Several times component parts of the movement or one of its leading figures have won the Nobel Peace Prize: Henry Dunant in 1901; the ICRC in 1917 and 1944; and the ICRC and the League of Red Cross Societies in 1963.

The Red Cross Movement is guided by seven fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality. These are designed to ensure the organization's cohesiveness and the permanence of its activities.

The movement uses two symbols as its distinguishing mark: a red cross or a red crescent on a white ground. National societies usually use one or the other according to their state's choice. There are some nations, however, who do not recognize themselves in either emblem, and for this reason in December 2005 the movement adopted an additional symbol, the red crystal.

To coordinate efforts and clarify the respective roles of the ICRC and the International Federation, an International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held regularly—in principle every four years—with the participation of the nations signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Precisely because of this participation, the decisions of the conference can have significant formative effects on international law. In the intervals between conferences, liaison among the component parts of the organization is maintained by the Standing Commission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.


The idea of the Red Cross arose from the initiative of the Swiss Henry Dunant, who witnessed the terrible suffering of wounded soldiers at the battle of Solferino (Italy) in 1859. In the absence of any military medical services, Dunant called on local people for help and improvised aid to the injured men abandoned on the battlefield. Dunant recounted this experience in his book Un souvenir de Solférino (1862; A Memory of Solferino) and made two proposals as to how help might be furnished, without distinction, to all soldiers wounded in combat. First, he suggested that in peacetime, and in each country, national aid committees should be set up with the power to intervene during military conflicts; second, he urged nations to recognize and respect a number of principles governing the action of such committees. In February 1863, Dunant and four fellow Genevans—Louis Appia, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Théodore Maunoir, and Gustave Moynier—took the first step in realizing these ideas by founding an "International Committee for Aid to Wounded Soldiers." In 1875 this committee would officially become the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Its headquarters is still in Geneva, and its members are still exclusively Swiss.

In August 1863 the committee convened an international conference in Geneva to consider how best to remedy the lack of official medical services for armies on campaign. This meeting produced ten resolutions that became the bedrock of the International Movement of the Red Cross.

After the 1863 conference the International Committee for Aid to Wounded Soldiers set itself two goals: the swift establishment of national societies for aid to war casualties and the concluding of an international treaty underwriting the neutrality of medical aid administered to the wounded in time of war. Accordingly, ten national societies were founded in June 1864, and in August of the same year, at the invitation of Switzerland, a diplomatic conference opened in Geneva with sixteen nations represented.

At the conclusion of this conference, on 22 August, representatives of twelve nations signed a "Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field." This was the First Geneva Convention. It was quickly ratified by the signatories, and many other nations adhered to it later.

It should be emphasized that the First Geneva Convention constitutes the cornerstone of public international law, because it constitutes the first multilateral treaty concluded in peacetime, open to all nations. By establishing the wounded soldier's right to protection and assistance, the convention marked the birth of modern humanitarian law, specifically "Geneva law," which is concerned with the treatment of the victims of war.

The First Geneva Convention was revised and expanded in 1906, and modified once more in 1929, at which time another convention was adopted "relative to the treatment of prisoners of war." In 1949 all the Geneva Conventions, of which there were now three, were again revised, and a new, Fourth Convention was signed "relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war." In 1977 two new treaties were signed by many nations and added to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. These "additional protocols" concerned, respectively, "the protection of victims of international armed conflicts" and "the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts."


Ever since its founding, the ICRC has continued to further the Red Cross's action in the world by encouraging the creation of new national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and by urging nations to sign the Geneva Conventions. It is a strictly neutral intermediary, its mandate being to protect and assist victims of conflict. It was on this basis that the ICRC sent its representatives to the scenes of the Prusso-Danish War (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871).

As part of its intervention during this last-mentioned conflict, the ICRC set up a tracing agency whose purpose was to allow soldiers, be they wounded, sick, or prisoners, to get news to their families. This kind of activity was undertaken once more in the wars that followed, including the last Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the Serbo-Bulgarian War (1885), the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), and World War I (1914–1918).

The duration and magnitude of World War I led the ICRC to undertake new kinds of action. Red Cross delegations were sent to prison camps to review the physical and material conditions of detention and call if need be for improvements therein. The ICRC also concerned itself with the fate of civilians in enemy hands, seeking to obtain treatment for them similar to that promised to prisoners of war. When hostilities ended, it organized the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of POWs and came to the aid of populations hit by famine and epidemic.

The impact of World War I also led the ICRC to work for the expansion of international humanitarian law, spurring the revision of the First Geneva Convention in 1929 and the framing at that time, as mentioned above, of the Third Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. In the interwar years the ICRC conducted several major campaigns of protection and aid, most notably during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935–1936 and the Spanish civil war of 1936–1939.

World War II was especially onerous for the ICRC. It was of course confronted by immense demands on its services, and more than three thousand new workers had to be taken on. The organization strove to maintain delegations in all the belligerent countries, while about eleven thousand visits were made to prison camps, and an estimated thirty-six million care packages distributed.

The ICRC found it difficult to intervene in favor of some prisoners of war, especially in view of the fact that neither the Soviet Union nor Japan was bound by the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of POWs. It attempted to apply the convention in a de facto manner, but met with only very partial success in this. German prisoners in Soviet hands and Soviet prisoners held by the Germans were simply not protected by the convention. The situation was little different in the Far East, where very few prison-camp visits were ever made.

As for civilians, the ICRC failed to gauge the massive scope either of the genocide of the Jews and Gypsies, or of the persecution of other minorities by the Nazis. Even though the humanitarian law of the time offered little recourse with respect to the protection of civilians, the ICRC could have exercised its right to intervene far more vigorously than it did. The organization envisaged a public denunciation of the genocide, but the proposal was rejected after intense discussions within its committee. This diplomatic silence during the Holocaust constitutes one of the gravest episodes in the ICRC's history.

The catastrophic balance-sheet of World War II, with its gigantic civilian toll, was the motivation for the new Geneva Convention concerning the protection of civilian populations in wartime and for the revision of those conventions already in effect. Four newly framed conventions were thus adopted on 12 August 1949.

Between 1946 and 1970, aside from tasks related to the aftermath of World War II (repatriation, search for the missing, family reunification), the ICRC launched protection and aid programs in several armed conflicts. It intervened in the Korean War (1950–1953); in the Hungarian uprising of 1956–1957; in military conflicts in the Near East (1948–1950, 1956, 1967, 1973); in anticolonial wars in Algeria (1955–1962) and the Congo (1960); and in the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970).

In the realm of international humanitarian law, the ICRC drafted the two protocols that were added to the Geneva Conventions in 1949. These two treaties, which took into account the new forms of conflict and set forth rules designed to protect civilians during hostilities, were adopted on 8 June 1977 by the diplomatic conference convened in Geneva between 1974 and 1977.

Between 1960 and 1990, the ICRC intervened ever more frequently in the Third World, as for instance in the conflict between India and Pakistan (1971–1975), in the wars in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), and the first Gulf War (1991). It also acted in the upheavals and conflicts that shook Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, and Sudan and was in the field in Poland in 1981–1984 and in Romania in 1989–1990. Between 1986 and 1990, the ICRC played a role in a total of eighty countries.

During the years from 1990 to 2000, the so-called humanitarian decade, as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) mushroomed and the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations were boosted by the end of the Cold War, the ICRC's activity likewise expanded considerably. The organization was represented during all the main conflicts of the period—in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Chechnya, and Sudan. In the first years of the twenty-first century, too, the ICRC continued to deploy broadly alongside the United Nations (UN) and the NGOs.


Directly descended from the national relief societies for assisting the war wounded, the national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent total 183 as of 2006, with several million members and volunteers and some three hundred thousand employees in all. Each year these societies assist millions of people.

The main requirements for recognition as a national society are as follows: the society must be established within the frontiers of a country that subscribes to the Geneva Conventions; must be the sole such entity in that country and recognized by its government; must have an autonomous status; must use the emblem in conformity with movement regulations; must recruit members without distinction as to race, sex, social class, religion, or political opinion; and must pledge to respect the fundamental principles of the Red Cross.

During peacetime, the national societies are merely auxiliaries to their respective governments in the social sphere: they may establish and manage hospitals; train nursing staff; provide aid to the disadvantaged, the handicapped, or the elderly; deliver emergency care in the event of natural disaster; and so on. In this capacity they are subject to all national laws. In 2003, however, the need for a clearer definition of this auxiliary function vis-à-vis state authorities made itself felt, for the original conception of the mandate—the provision of aid to wounded and sick soldiers on the field of battle—had become so blurred that the universal calling of the national societies was not always apparent.

For the national societies have an international role: in collaboration with the International Federation or the ICRC, they serve the needs of victims of armed conflict or natural disaster everywhere. Each is therefore expected to support peer societies in other countries and bolster their preparedness for future eventualities.


In the wake of the very considerable efforts of the national societies during World War I, it was decided that they should federate as an international organization. At the suggestion of the president of the American Red Cross War Committee, Henry P. Davison, the League of Red Cross Societies was founded on 5 May 1919 in Paris. Its purpose was to initiate and foster cooperation between the national societies in the work of improving health, preventing illness, and reducing suffering in the world.

This new organization at first sought to take over the leadership of the Red Cross Movement from the ICRC, even putting the latter's continued existence in jeopardy. The ICRC stood firm, however, and managed to maintain its position while proposing possible forms of coexistence with the league. In 1928, in order to define the respective responsibilities of the two organizations, the Red Cross for the first time in its history adopted a set of statutes.

In 1919–1920, the league conducted its first great relief campaign when it aided the victims of a typhus outbreak in Poland. A year later it assisted a famine-stricken Russia. In 1923, with the help of thirty-five national societies, it collected 277 million Swiss francs for earthquake victims in Tokyo. During the 1930s the league assisted refugees from the Spanish civil war (1936–1939) and from a Czechoslovakia under threat from the Third Reich (1938).

The league was also very active in the areas of health care and youth work. It ran training courses for health workers and mounted campaigns against a variety of epidemic diseases including tuberculosis, venereal disease, and malaria. As part of this activity, in 1922 the league founded the Youth Red Cross as a means of enlisting young people in the struggle for better understanding among peoples and enduring peace.

During World War II the league's activities were sharply reduced due to political divisions. The organization nevertheless continued to ensure communications among the various national societies, and otherwise concentrated on the expansion of those of them that were not directly affected by the war. Together with the ICRC, moreover, it set up a joint relief commission that carried out vast operations for the relief of civilian populations.

After the war, the league resumed its traditional activities, with the emphasis on the promotion of peace. Beginning in 1948, it promoted blood donation, pressing the national societies to organize blood drives.

Between 1948 and 1990 the league organized various relief actions for refugees and disaster victims. The league and a number of national societies provided relief to refugees of many nationalities: Palestinian (1948–1950), Hungarian (1956–1957), Algerian (1958–1962), and Vietnamese (1975–1985). The league also came to the aid of earthquake victims, as in Morocco and Chile in 1960, Turkey and Guatemala in 1976, Mexico in 1985, and Armenia in 1988; and it helped populations suffering the effects of tidal waves and cyclones in the Gulf of Bengal (1966–1973, 1977–1982).

See alsoInternational Law; Prisoners of War; Refugees.


Boissier, Pierre. From Solferino to Tsushima: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Geneva, 1985.

Bugnion, François. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims. Oxford, U.K., and Geneva, 2003.

Durand, André. From Sarajevo to Hiroshima: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Geneva, 1984.

Haug, Hans. Humanity for All: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. In cooperation with Hans-Peter Gasser, Françoise Perret, and Jean-Pierre Robert-Tissot. Berne, Switzerland, 1993.

Pictet, Jean. The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross Proclaimed by the Twentieth International Conference of the Red Cross, Vienna, 1965: Commentary. Geneva, 1979.

Reid, Daphne A., and Patrick F. Gilbo. Beyond Conflict: The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 1919–1994. Geneva, 1997.

Isabelle VonÈche Cardia