The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the world's largest humanitarian network. The Movement is neutral and impartial, and provides protection and assistance to people affected by disasters and conflicts.
The Movement is made up of nearly 100 million members, volunteers and supporters in 190 National Societies. It has three main components:
- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
- The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
- 190 member Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies (NS).
As partners, the different members of the Movement support communities to become stronger and safer through a variety of development projects and humanitarian activities. The Movement also works in cooperation with governments, donors and other aid organizations to assist vulnerable people around the world.
The ICRC, the Federation and the National Societies are independent bodies. Each has its own individual status and exercises no authority over the others.
Prior to 1859, there were no organised systems for nursing casualties of war, or those who were injured in the battlefield. This was noted by Swiss businessman, Jean-Henri Dunant, when he witnessed the Battle of Soferino, an engagement in the Austro-Sardinian War. On a single day in this battle in June 1859, 40,000 soldiers were left wounded on the field. Dunant, who was on a business trip, abandoned his plans and devoted himself to attending the sick and wounded. He also succeeded in organising the local community to assist, attending the wounded with no discrimination.
It was this experience that inspired Dunant to self-publish the book ‘A memory of Solferino’, which advocated the formation of local, voluntary relief organisations to nurse the wounded in cases of war. He also called for international treaties to guarantee the protection of neutral medics and field hospitals for those wounded on the battlefield. The book inspired the organisation of an international conference in Geneva in 1863, of which the final resolutions included:
The foundation of national relief societies for wounded soldiers.
Neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers.
The utilisation of volunteer forces for relief assistance on the battlefield.
The organisation of additional conferences to enact these concepts in legally binding international treaties.
The introduction of a common distinctive protection symbol for medical personnel in the field, namely a white armlet bearing a red cross.
A further diplomatic conference was held one year later, where the first Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field" was adopted. The convention comprised of ten articles, establishing rules that were legally binding, and guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict. Two more specific requirements were included, requiring the recognition of national societies:
The national society must be recognized by its own national government as a relief society according to the convention,
The national government of the respective country must be a state party to the Geneva Convention.
In 1864, the Red Cross was first used as a symbol of independence and neutrality in an armed conflict.
In the following years, National Societies were created across the globe, with countries signing the Geneva Convention, and respecting it during armed conflicts. In 1876, the name “International Committee of the Red Cross” (ICRC) was adopted, which is still in use today. The organisation very quickly gained international respect, and became a very popular movement for volunteer work. Also during this period, the Ottoman empire declared that it would use a red crescent on a white background, instead of the cross.
The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Jean-Henri Dunant in 1901, which acknowledged “respectful recognition to the man of noble sentiments who, perceiving things to come, knew how to give priority to the great problems of civilization, putting in first place among them work for peace and fraternity among nations”.
World War 1 brought many challenges to the ICRC, which relied heavily on the national Red Cross societies. Volunteer nurses from around the world supported the medical services of the European countries involved with the war. This period also saw the creation of the Prisoner of War Agency, which numbered 1,200 mostly volunteer staff in 1914. This agency saw the transfer of around 20 million letters, 1.9 million parcels and 18 million swiss francs in donations to POW’s of all nationalities. Between 1914 and 1923, records of around 7 million prisoners or missing persons were documented, which enabled around 2 million POW’s to contact their families. Approximately 5 million of those records can be accessed via the website https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/.
Throughout the war, the ICRC monitored warring nations compliance with the Geneva Convention, reporting violations to the relevant authorities. This included the use of chemical weapons, which had been used for the first time in history. The ICRC also sent inspection delegations to the POW camps, and created a series of postcards with images of the prisoners undertaking day-to-day activities, to provide their families at home some hope and reassurance. The ICRC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, the only time the prize was awarded between 1914 and 1918.
In 1919, the “League of Red Cross Societies” was formed. Led by the American Red Cross, this move allowed the expansion of the Red Cross movement to provide relief assistance in emergencies that were not caused by war, and included man-made or natural disasters. The first assistance mission organised by the League was the famine and subsequent typhus epidemic in Poland. The first large scale disaster response was following the 1923 earthquake in Japan. Another important initiative during this time was the creation of youth organisations within the National Societies.
The ICRC was involved in World War 2, using a legal basis of the 1929 revision of the Geneva Convention. The tasks undertaken were similar to those in World War 1; organising relief for civilian populations, monitoring POW camps, and facilitating the exchange of messages regarding POW and missing persons. The card index tracking prisoners contained around 45 million cards, which organised the exchange of around 120 million messages. The Nazi controlled German Red Cross refused to adhere to the Geneva convention statutes, but did finally relent to the ICRC’s demands in 1945, allowing delegates to visit the concentration camps, so long as they remained in the camps until the end of the war. The presence of these delegates was effective, with around 60,000 saved in Camp Mauthausen in Austria, when the ICRC delegate alerted American troops of the potential of forced eviction or blasting. Another delegate is credited with saving the lives of 11,000 – 15,000 people in Hungary.
The ICRC received its second Nobel Peace Prize in 1944. As in the 1st World War, it was the only Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded during the period of war, 1939 – 1945. At the end of the war, the ICRC and the National Societies continued to provide relief assistance to those countries most severely affected. Archives from this period can be requested through the ICRC website https://www.icrc.org/en/archives.
As a celebration of its centennial year, the ICRC together with the League of Red Cross Societies, was awarded its third Nobel Peace Prize in 1963. In the post-war period, the existing Geneva Conventions were reviewed, and more created, relating to naval conflicts, treatment of prisoners of war, and the protection of civilian persons in time of war. Today, there are 4 conventions and their added protocols, which contain more than 600 articles.
In 1983, the League changed its name to the “League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies” to reflect the increasing number of societies using the red crescent symbol. This was changed again in 1991, to the “International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies” (IFRC). A further initiative was the adoption of the Red Crystal symbol in 2005, which allows National Societies to use a symbol without any national, political or religious connotation.
Today, the organisation consists of around 97 million people, who serve the ICRC, the International Federation, and the National Societies. Most people are involved at the National Society Level. The movement operates under the Fundamental Principles, which are shared by all components of the movement. More information the Fundamental Principles can be found on the IFRC website.
The ICRC remains the lead agency related to conflicts, ensuring the welfare of POW’s, those wounded on the battlefield, missing persons, caring for civilian populations, and ensuring the Geneva Conventions are upheld.
The IFRC coordinates cooperation between the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and supports the creation of new societies were none exist. It coordinates and leads relief assistance missions after emergencies such as natural disasters, manmade disasters, epidemics and mass refugee flights.
The National Societies administer responsibilities as defined by International Humanitarian Law. The activities they undertake will depend on the local context, but may include humanitarian aid in armed conflicts and emergency crises such as natural disasters, and activities such as Restoring Family Links. Many National Societies take on additional humanitarian tasks within their home countries such as blood donation services or acting as civilian Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers. There are 186 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, with more currently being formed.