The Red Cross and its prestigious activity
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Written By: Laza Florina
The story of a revolutionary idea begins in a small Italian city, called Solferino, in 1859 during the war between the French-Piedmontese and the Austrian armies in Northern Italy. At that time, a young Swiss businessman, Jean Henry Dunant, was passing by and so, he witnessed the terrifying images of a bloody battlefield. He immediately chose to stay and tried to give his support by arranging for relief services with the help of the local community.
This particular event inspired him to write the book, called “Memory of Solferino”, in which he described the measurements that should have been taken in order to minimize the casualties and reduce the number of deaths during the conflict. He firmly advocated for the formation of national voluntary relief organizations to help aid wounded soldiers during armed conflicts. This declaration was about to become the foundation stone for one of the most applauded movements of the 19th Century and, also, the starter point for a three-time Nobel Prize Laureate humanitarian organization.
Just one year after the book was released, Dunant was able to urge the calling together of an international conference through his membership in the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, with the purpose of analyzing and applying those courageous and innovative statements. And so the International Red Cross Movement made its first steps into the world through the paragraphs of the First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field from 1864. At the time, it was signed only by 12 countries, but today it represents the main point of support for soldiers, prisoners, refugees and civilians all over the globe during armed conflicts, natural disasters and emergencies.
The convention consisted of 10 articles that established for the first time a legal context that ensures the protection of war victims, the constant presence of medical aid during battlefields and humanitarian support form specialized institutions. It was a time of change, hope, and patriotic sentiments, but not for long.
Immediately after the convention was put in practice, the first Red Cross societies were born. The convention specified 2 conditions through its articles for the recognition of a national relief society: first of all, the national society must be recognized as a relief society by its own national government and second, the national relief society’s state must be a state party to the Geneva Convention. And so the first national relief societies were founded in countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Prussia, and Spain etc. In the beginning, there were only 7, but today there are 190 national relief societies. In 1878, the committee took the name “International Committee of the Red Cross” (ICRC) and kept it to this very day.
In a short period of time, the international movement gained enormous popularity and Henry Dunant’s revolutionary ideas proved to be of important significance for the fate of the world. He played a key role in the foundation of the Red Cross and should be remembered primarily for his pacifistic work, achievements, and values.
An honorable mention is that national relief societies can be recognized in times of armed conflicts by their distinctive symbols. The official symbol of the ICRC is the Red Cross on white background with the words “COMITE INTERNATIONAL GENEVE” circling the cross. Actually, the name and the emblem of the movement are derived from the reversal of the Swiss national flag to honor the country in which the Red Cross was founded. Later, it was supplemented by 2 other emblems which are the Red Crescent, and the Red Crystal to deprive it of any national, political or religious connotation.
By the time of the First World War, 50 years after the foundation of the ICRC, there were already 45 national relief societies throughout the world. During the conflicts, the national Red Cross societies came together to support the medical services provided in time of war and tried to provide hope and comfort for the families of the prisoners through numerous actions. Also, the ICRC served as a monitoring body for the compliance of the Geneva Convention and sent complaints to the respective country when necessary.
The Origin of the Indian Red Cross Society dates back in 1920 in the context of the same horrific Great War. When the First World War started in 1914, India had no organization for specialized medical services in times of wars, disasters, and emergencies, except one branch of the Joint War Committee, which was a collaboration between the St. John Ambulance Association and the British Red Cross. Only 6 years later a bill was presented to the Indian Legislative Council to constitute the Indian Red Cross Society, independent of the British Red Cross. And finally 14 days later, the bill was passed and became part of the Parliament Act XV of 1920 with the assent of the Governor-General on the 20th March 1920. And so the Indian Red Cross Society was born and undertook the burden of the much needed medical services in times of armed conflicts, disasters, and emergencies.
Today, the Indian Red Cross Society, located in the Indian city of New Delhi, is a member of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, having more than 30 State and Union Territories Branches with more than 700 districts and sub-district branches. It also has a close partnership with other National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, St. John Ambulance, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (IFRC), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other multinational firms. The Minister of Health and Family Welfare is the Chairman of the Society and the president of India is the President of the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS).
During the Second World War, the International Committee kept its principles, purposes and applied the same kind of activities towards those in need for relief or medical services by monitoring the POW camps, organizing medical assistance, administrating the exchange of messages regarding prisoners and missing persons. But unfortunately, despite its efforts, the greatest failure in the ICRC’s history it’s considered to be the lack of response in front of the massive reliable information concerning the mass killing of European Jews in extermination camps. Even though they knew about the plans for the Jews, they chose to maintain the silence and did not inform the public. And this left a permanent mark in the ICRC’s memory.
At the end of the war, the Red Cross’s work was far from being finished, and so, the ICRC worked hard in partnership with Red Cross societies to organize relief assistance to those countries severely affected by the war.
Since then treaties were signed, changes were made, promises were given, efforts never stopped, and still to this very day, the work and purpose of the Red Cross did not reach its final goal and it’s more likely that it will never stop. Surprisingly, after the Cold War’s tensions disappeared it was not long before other local and internal armed conflicts started to burst to make the ICRC’s work became even more dangerous. More delegates were assassinated than at any other point in its history in places such as Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, etc.
But let’s take a look at the Red Cross’s legal basis and legal status. Today, the ICRC’s legal basis is primarily composed of the four Geneva Convention of 1949, their 2 Additional Protocols of 1977 and Additional Protocol III of 2005, the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement with its operations based on International Humanitarian Law both treaties and customary law.
Contrary to what most people believe, the ICRC is not an international organization, neither of non-governmental nor of governmental type, but a private association registered under the Swiss law. Also, the ICRC has special privileges and legal immunities in many countries based on national laws, inter-governmental agreements and even international jurisprudence.
Today the ICRC is primarily present in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Lake Chad, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Therefore, thousands of committed volunteers and humanitarian workers cross the front lines everyday holding the ICRC’s symbol. They risk their lives to help millions of people affected by the conflict by providing medical care and basic services such as food, water, blankets and medical care. They are everywhere for everyone.
Regarding of everything, the ICRC’s emblem remains to this day a sign of hope for those affected by the great horrors of wars, left with no faith and living day by day thinking that each day could be their last. They are nothing but pawns at the mercy of constantly changing geopolitical interests of the powerful.