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The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, with agencies in over 178 countries around the world, aims through humanitarian intervention and international law to help victims of war and armed conflict (on a local or international scale) or to aid those afflicted by natural and human-caused disasters.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the Federation), together with the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in over 178 countries around the world, form the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. As a whole, the Movement’s mission is to help victims of international and local armed conflicts and to lessen the horrors of war indirectly through international law and directly through humanitarian intervention. The larger movement also undertakes the peacetime relief of suffering from natural and human-made disasters. There are currently over 250 million members of the Red Cross Movement.
Perhaps more than any other international organization, the Red Cross has been able to shape international behavior. Working through the international legal system with the Geneva Conventions (first developed in 1864, and adopted in their current form in 1949) and other treaties, the Red Cross has created what is now almost universally recognized as correct humanitarian behavior in wartime: neutrality for medical personnel and their equipment and the humane treatment of prisoners of war. The ICRC considers itself the “guardian of international humanitarian law” and works to extend the reach and observance of those laws. The success of the international body has been aided by the local importance of the national societies.
The International Committee of the Red Cross
The ICRC is the original, earliest Red Cross group, founded in 1863 by Jean- Henri Dunant (1828– 1910), who was honored for this accomplishment in 1901 with the first Nobel Peace Prize. The ICRC, an independent organization that remains small and almost unchanged since the late 1800s, is a nongovernmental organization staffed almost entirely by citizens of Switzerland, a policy intended to safeguard the neutral political stance of the organization. These 800-plus “delegates” conduct business for the Committee around the world. The group’s main responsibility is to work as a neutral intermediary in situations of armed conflict, protecting both military and civilian victims, as well as mobilizing and organizing the national societies to assist its work. Comprising fifteen to twenty-five members who make policy for the Committee, the ICRC is technically a private Swiss company, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, where its archives and offices are located.
The Federation and the National Societies
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is augmented considerably by the work of the national societies, self-governing organizations that today exist in over 178 countries (the societies in Taiwan and Israel are not recognized by the ICRC). These groups are funded by membership fees and popular subscriptions, although in many countries, government subsidies provide much of their monies. Each national society has a unique character and history, linked to the national history of the country in which the society was founded. For example, the American Red Cross Society was a latecomer to the Red Cross organization. It was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton and chartered by Congress in 1900, and modeled on the Japanese Red Cross Society, which was the preeminent Red Cross society in the world at the time. Many national societies sponsor public health programs, as well as provide disaster relief and assist the ICRC in war relief.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, like the ICRC, is an international group with headquarters in Geneva, representing the national societies and coordinating their mutual help, cooperation, and program development. Proposed after World War I by American Red Cross War Committee president Henry Davison, it was founded in 1919 as the League of Red Cross Societies. The League changed its name in 1983 to the League of Red Cross and Crescent Societies, to include Muslim nations unwilling to adopt the sign of the cross, and finally in 1991 became the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The Red Cross Movement: Perspectives on the Future
In the past 140 years, the Red Cross has grown from a small group of visionary European men intent on lessening the destruction caused by war to a worldwide movement including and serving people on all continents. The movement has been unusually successful in educating states and individuals in its principles, principles it claims are universal: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality. The Red Cross symbol is perhaps the most widely recognized symbol in the world, known to people of all nations as a beacon of medical aid and relief. The success of the Red Cross mission is encouraging for those hoping to create an international society that has the moral weight to influence the behavior of states and individual actors.
- Berry, N. O. (1997). War and the Red Cross: The unspoken mission. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Best, G. (1980). Humanity in warfare. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Dunant, H. (1986). A memory of Solferino. Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross.
- Hutchinson, J. F. (1996). Champions of charity: War and the rise of the Red Cross. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Moorehead, C. (1998). Dunant’s dream: War, Switzerland, and the history of the Red Cross. New York: Carroll & Graf.
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