Red Cross and Red Crescent as seen at the main entry to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

When Swiss businessman Jean Henri Dunant (1828 – 1910) happened upon the aftermath of a horrific battle in Solferino, Italy, the seed of the idea for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was planted. Tens of thousands of wounded soldiers and townspeople lay dying in the streets, abandoned and forgotten where they fell. Dunant rallied locals and military alike to rescue and treat as many people as possible, even going so far as to personally purchase needed medical supplies and set up field hospitals for quick access.

Shortly thereafter, the First Geneva Convention was held in Switzerland and rules of conduct pertaining to wounded soldiers during times of war were established. One of the most important developments of that first convention was the adoption of a clear and easily recognized symbol that would identify medical personnel – a simple red cross on a white background.

The idea of protection for wounded soldiers quickly spread and was adopted by more than a dozen nations within its first year. Today, there are more than 190 member nations and the symbol of the red cross is used universally and equally.

Workers for the ICRC wear red cross arm bands and all facilities, vehicles, and other equipment are clearly marked with the red cross as well. Since its inception, the ICRC has brought relief to soldiers and civilians in times of war but services have now been expanded to rescue operations, too, for natural disasters and other major crises.

At first glance, the idea of a red cross to designate unarmed medical facilities produced no conflict in and of itself but the Christian-looking cross was not welcome in Muslim nations. To eliminate hostilities and allow free and neutral access to those who needed their services, the ICRC replaced the cross with a red crescent that is officially recognized in 33 Islamic nations as of 2011.

The red crescent emblem was first used during the conflict between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s. It was officially adopted by the ICRC in 1929.

The ICRC is an independent body not affiliated with any nation or army. Its strict adherence to military neutrality allows its universal acceptance by armies around the world. Even though not working directly under the jurisdiction of the ICRC, every military medic wears a red cross or red crescent arm band to clearly identify his or her humanitarian intentions and protected status.

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