The story of the International Red Cross: it all began on the battlefield

By Carol Bright | 1995-11-01 12:00:00

On June 24, 1859, in Solferino, a town in northern Italy, French and Italian troops were engaged in a fierce battle against occupying Austrian forces. Within a few hours there were 40,000 dead or wounded.

The medical services of the armies were quite inadequate and so the wounded were abandoned. The spectacle of their suffering appalled Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman. He set about helping them regardless of their nationality and called on the local population to assist. Dunant related his experience in 1862 in his book, A Memory of Solferino. He printed the book at his own expense and sent copies to the monarchs of Europe, to politicians, military officers, philanthropists, and friends. The European public was moved and shocked by his description of the war. So also was Gustave Moynier, lawyer and president of the Geneva Public Welfare Society. He proposed a meeting, which led to the founding of a five-member commission with Dunant, General Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Dr. Louis Appia, and Dr. Theodore Maunoir, all Swiss citizens. The commission met in 1863 and named itself the "International Committee for Relief to the Wounded." They took that emblem from their native Swiss flag, reversing it as a red cross on a white background, a cross which was to become a shield for the wounded.

The Geneva Convention

Dunant's vision was to form, in peacetime, relief societies to aid the wounded in wartime. He also believed that those assisting on the battlefield should be given neutral status. From this, modern international humanitarian law was born, culminating in the writing in 1864 of the original Geneva Convention.

By 1949 there were four Geneva Conventions affording protection to wounded and sick members of the armed forces, medical personnel, chaplains, the shipwrecked, prisoners of war and finally civilians in enemy or occupied territory. Practically all states have ratified or acceded to the Conventions and thereby pledge to:

These treaties confer on the ICRC the right to take action and to offer its services, distinguishing it from all other humanitarian organizations. The international community has in effect conferred this permanent mandate on the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

It was not until 1965 at the 20th conference in Vienna that the ICRC established its Seven Fundamental Principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. The ICRC sees its contribution towards building a spirit of peace in its role as neutral intermediary on behalf of victims of conflict and as a promoter of humanitarian law.

These ideals have been challenged in the struggles of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The conflicts and tragedies that resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia meant that the ICRC once again had to strive for the application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), urging the parties to the conflict to provide better protection for those not directly involved in the hostilities. A number of rules needed to be respected to preserve a minimum of humanity.

In 1992 the ICRC convened meetings in Geneva with the various parties involved in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. All concerned stated their readiness to respect and apply International Humanitarian Law irrespective of the status of the conflict in legal terms and to instruct their combatants accordingly. Four agreements were signed, expanding the Geneva Conventions to provide for the release and transfer of all detainees other than those accused of serious violations of IHL. Conditions for such transfers included the possibility of moving detainees to neighboring countries in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They also agreed not to recruit into their armed forces prisoners released under the agreement.

Confidentiality Has Built Trust

The ICRC has reminded all parties to the conflict that humanitarian activities have to be kept separate from military operations. The ICRC's pledge of confidentiality has built trust. Delegates who obtain information will report it solely to the said authorities and not make it public unless action fails to be taken to correct problems.

Whenever delegates hear of alleged atrocities, they first contact the local military or civilian authorities personally or in writing, requesting that steps be taken to avoid a recurrence of theincident. The ICRC has issued public statements in accordance with its doctrine on many occasions, such as on Aug. 23, 1992, when the ICRC was denied access to detainees in the Manjaca and Omarska camps and on Sept. 7, 1994, when fighting continued with disregard for the security of civilians.

Delegates soon realized that the majority of detainees were civilians, adolescents, women and elderly people who were not combatants.

A visit to a detainee from an ICRC delegate lets the delegate know what is happening, how the guards are behaving, what the quality and quantity of the food is, and whether medical treatment is provided. Clothing, blankets, books, etc., are distributed. To the lucky few, messages from their families bring hope.

Nearly four million civilians have been displaced since the outbreak of fighting in Yugoslavia, the largest population movement in Europe for the past 50 years. Families have been split up, children separated from parents, family members incarcerated, and many have died. Profound feelings of insecurity and vulnerability are widespread.

In response, the ICRC has launched one of the most extensive operations in its history for tracing missing persons and restoring family links. The Red Cross message network forwarded more than 11 million messages across front lines and borders in 1994. More than 5,000 people have been reunited with relatives since 1992. A computer program is used to record details on every individual and any further action taken. The database for the former Yugoslavia contains 64,000 names and 300,000 items of information. Still many families are without news of their missing relatives.

It is a harsh reality that as many war crimes as ever are still being committed on all continents, despite the development for nearly 20 years of IHL. The ICRC believes that the existing international treaties are very comprehensive and precise and that the problem lies in their implementation and the fulfillment of obligations contracted by states.

As a result of the horrors experienced in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda two international tribunals have been set up in The Hague and in Arusha (Tanzania) to try those accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

There is another approach which might better serve to ensure respect for the individual in armed conflicts. Since 1949 national courts have been competent tojudge war crimes but have never put this obligation into practice because of the absence of national legislation instituting penalties. In July the ICRC established a new unit called Advisory Services on International Humanitarian Law. It will examine national legislation with a view to recommending legal reforms required to prosecute all those accused of war crimes and to set up internal structures to ensure compliance with humanitarian law as a whole.

The ICRC's Advisory Services will facilitate a network of committees for the implementation of IHL with various ministries represented. The aim would be to identify for each country the missing legal nexus required to adapt national legislation to IHL and bring to justice any person found guilty of such crimes. Starting in 1996 the ICRC will extend these services to the field and will appoint a legal expert responsible for each continent. The accomplishment of this task of consultation, analysis and harmonization of legal instruments will serve to ensure that no perpetrator of such crimes goes unpunished.

When violence surrounds us we hold back our compassion, fearing that we can't make a difference. It takes great courage to release our compassion and realize that we deserve a safe and more humane world. The Red Cross is a symbol of that world.

Carol Bright is a Peace and Conflict Studies student at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995, page 22. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Carol Bright here

Peace Magazine homepage