Monday, December 17, 2007


The Red Cross is one of our world’s great humanitarian organizations. Unfortunately, little is known about it—especially in mainstream America.

Were you aware that it won the Nobel Peace Prize not once but thrice? It was awarded the prize twice for its work after the First and Second World Wars. In 1963, its 100th anniversary, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was awarded its third Nobel Prize. In addition, its founder, a Swiss businessman, was one of two individuals who were awarded the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.


You’ve probably have heard of the Geneva Convention—where a treaty was signed that for the first time, rules of combat were agreed upon. These rules were intended to protect the wounded and sick on the battlefield and to ensure that the people who cared for them were recognized as neutral and were not to be attacked. The Geneva Convention occurred directly because of the Red Cross.

The year before, in 1863, sixteen nations—the military powers of that era, all European countries, discussed their plans for treatment of wounded soldiers in war. At that meeting they decided that medical staff and volunteers should wear a distinctive emblem for their protection. This meeting—the precursor to the Geneva Convention—was held in Geneva, Switzerland. They settled on the distinctive simplicity of the Swiss flag—with its colors reversed. The result is the now-familiar Red Cross against a white background. The following year, in 1864, they finalized their plans in what is now known as the Geneva Convention. And best of all, each signatory started its own national Red Cross.


In 1876, around the last Russo-Turkish War, religion, once again, changed history. The Turks—most of whom were Muslim—associated the red cross emblem with the red cross that was worn by the Crusaders of the Middle Ages. The Crusades were Christendom’s response to continuous Muslim invasions of Christian Europe. The First Crusade took place in the 11th century and the last one that was directed against the Muslims ended in the 13th century. Despite the intervening 600+ years, the Muslims took it upon themselves to attack and kill Red Cross volunteers.

The Turkish government—actually the Ottoman Empire—later apologized and announced that although they would respect the red cross emblem, they would create a new one for their own national volunteers. They reversed the Turkish flag’s colors and created the Red Crescent. Although it would last only another 45 years, the Ottoman Empire was the dominant force in the Muslim world. Consequently, other Muslim countries started following Turkey’s example. In 1929, the Red Crescent was formally adopted at the next Geneva Convention.


The United States joined the movement through the efforts of a small number of activists. One of these activists was Clara Barton, a remarkable woman—an American Florence Nightingale. 

She was a government employee who was touched in the same way that the Swiss businessman was 25 years earlier. She played a leading role in helping the wounded of the American Civil War.  She continued her participation in Europe after the Civil War and returned to the US determined to form an American chapter. After eight years, the American Association of the Red Cross was established in 1882. The US became a signatory to the Geneva Convention the following year.

Clara Barton was immortalized with a postage stamp.


Today’s Red Cross actually consists of two bodies. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. One is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the other is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The ICRC focuses on the victims of armed conflict. The Federation, on the other hand, works with national societies in assisting victims of all other types of disasters, including epidemics.

The two organizations coordinate their efforts. After a conflict ends, the ICRC gradually withdraws from each area and hands it over to the Federation. The Federation’s job is to support the local Red Cross rebuild the lives of the people left by the conflict.


Israel became independent or recognized internationally as a sovereign state in 1948. The following year, Israel tried to join. Unfortunately, Israel objected to using either the cross or the crescent. The Red Cross, on the other hand, refused to admit the Star of David.

This stalemate over emblems continued until two years ago, December 2005, when Israel’s modified emblem—a red crystal—was accepted over vociferous Muslim objections. The crystal may be displayed by any national society but it has not (yet) gained popular acceptance.


The Federation is popularly known as the “movement.” In 1965, the movement developed its seven fundamental principles to guide its mission.


The movement aims to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found.


The movement does not discriminate between races, nationalities, religious beliefs, class, or political opinions.


The movement does not take sides in any conflict or dispute.


National societies maintain their independence so they can act according to the principles of the movement.

Voluntary Service

The movement is a voluntary relief organization that is not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.


There can only be one Red Cross or Red Crescent society in each country. Membership in this organization must be open to all.


The movement is global in scope.

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