Seen in nearly 200 countries and at almost every tragedy in the world, the Red Cross emblem has become a symbol of neutrality and protection during war and conflict. Homelands, backgrounds and beliefs aside, when people see the red cross, a union is formed.
In 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross was established. Today, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies operate in more than 185 countries and provide humanitarian aid to people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. However, before the ICRC was formed, it was a different story…
Imagine a battlefield where medical personnel and soldiers are undistinguishable from one another - a combat zone where injured fighters lay unattended while field hospitals and medical vehicles are under attack. That is the world that existed until one man recognized a need for change.While travelling through Solferino, Italy in 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, witnessed the aftermath of a bloody battle between the French and Austrian armies. Providing as much relief as he could, he watched the death and suffering of thousands of wounded men, which led him to take action.
In 1862, Dunant published a small book entitled A Memory of Solferino, which depicts three themes: The first tells of the battle itself, the second portrays the aftershock of the fighting, and the third proposes a plan. He wrote, “Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted, and thoroughly qualified volunteers?” Not long after the release of his book, he met with a committee of five to determine the answer to that question was yes.
On August 22, 1864, a conference was held with several nations, military medical services and humanitarian societies in attendance. It was on this date that an international treaty known as the Geneva Convention was signed. The treaty granted neutrality and protection to medical personnel and facilities bearing an identifiable emblem – the symbol of a red cross on a white background. The symbol needed to be simple, recognizable from a distance and universal. The committee chose a design that was the reverse of the Swiss flag because of the country’s constant neutral standing and because variations in color and shape would not change the status of the cross.
Since then, many revisions have been made to the Geneva Convention, extending protection to other individuals and entities marked with the emblem, including civilians. More than a century later, Red Cross workers rely solely on the protection of their symbol, carrying no other weapons, and trusting the emblem as their shield conveying humanity, impartiality and neutrality.