In honor of the founding of the Red Cross on October 29, 1863, here's a closer look at the organization, how it works, and its greatest triumphs.
How It Works
There is no international Red Cross. Instead, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) oversees and approves national Red Cross organizations, ensuring those local organizations always live up to the committee’s objectives. The ICRC also handles a small number of issues that arise during international conflicts which require the oversight of a neutral humanitarian committee.
The International Committee operates out of Geneva, Switzerland (the building pictured above is its headquarters), and all of the people involved in this highest level of the organization must be of Swiss nationality. While this seems to be a little odd given the multi-cultural objectives of the group, the assembly believes the permanent neutrality of their country will ensure that no one ever questions the political motives of the decision makers. They say this way no one will ever feel high-level decisions affecting their country will be made by enemies of their country.
On the other hand, National Red Cross organizations are operated by people from all over the world. There are currently 186 national societies that are officially recognized by the ICRC; almost every country in the world has its own Red Cross society. These organizations provide emergency services, malaria eradication programs, blood drives, and local first aid training programs. The International Committee largely limits its services to investigating the condition of prisoners of war. Both groups help families get in touch with relatives who are separated and lost during global conflicts.
While other groups, like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, release their records regarding the conditions of prisoners of war, the Red Cross generally does not release their findings to anyone except the government involved. While this means they cannot push for more humane treatment of prisoners, it does allow them access to many locations that are off limits for similar groups. If the Committee finds that prisoners are being mistreated, they try to arrange low-key negotiations with the relevant government that will remain confidential.
In 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, traveled to Italy to discuss business with Napoleon III. On his way, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, where 40,000 soldiers from both sides were wounded or killed. Dunant was shocked at the atrocities he saw and immediately set about helping the wounded soldiers who received practically no medical attention after the battle was over. In the end, he ended up abandoning the original motivation for his trip, focusing instead on care for the wounded soldiers. He motivated the local residents to help, too, regardless of their military affiliation.
When Dunant returned to Geneva, he wrote A Memory of Solferino. After sending the book to leading political and military figures in Europe, Dunant began advocating the creation of voluntary relief organizations to help care for wounded soldiers in war. He also pushed for international treaties to assure protection of these relief organizations.
In 1863, Dunant gathered other leading figures from Geneva to discuss the feasibilities of his ideas and how to best implement them. Eight days later, they decided to name the committee the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.”
In October of that year, the committee held an international conference to develop measures that would improve battlefield medical services; it was attended by more than 30 representatives from countries throughout Europe. The resolutions adopted from this first meeting included the creation of relief societies, protection for wounded soldiers, and the introduction of a distinctive protection symbol for medics in the field. The symbol chosen at the conference was a white arm band with a red cross—the first official use of the Red Cross logo (although they didn’t start to use that name until 3 years later).
The following year, the Swiss government invited all European governments, the United States, Brazil, and Mexico to attend an official diplomatic conference regarding those resolutions. Sixteen governments sent delegates to this first Geneva Convention, and 12 countries signed the convention binding rules for neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and humanitarian institutions. The convention also defined two requirements for the recognition of a national relief society as defined by the International Committee: A society must be recognized by their own national government, and the country involved must be a party in the Geneva Convention.
Immediately after the Geneva Convention, the first national relief societies were formed in Belguim, Denmark, France, Oldenburg, Prussia, Spain, and Württemberg. Within a few years, almost every country created a relief society—including the American Red Cross, started by Clara Barton.
While Red Cross agencies dealt with a number of conflicts after their initial creation, the first major test of their effectiveness was during the first World War. Immediately after the war broke out, the ICRC set up an international Prisoners of War (POW) Agency. By the end of the war, the group transferred about 20 million letters and 18 million Swiss francs worth of donations to POWs in all affected countries. The agency also helped safely exchange 200,000 prisoners, allowing them to return to their home countries.
During the war, they also monitored the fighting countries for compliance with the Geneva Conventions and forwarded their complaints to the countries responsible. When chemical weapons were used for the first time ever, the ICRC fought their use immediately.
While the Geneva Conventions did not dictate that the ICRC should help civilian populations, the committee also helped residents who were suffering from the war. A year before WWI ended, the ICRC received a Nobel Peace Prize for its wartime work. It was the only prize awarded during the conflict.
In 1925, another Geneva Convention was held, and the use of chemical and biological weapons was outlawed. The committee also drafted a new set of rules dictating the proper treatment for prisoners of war.
When WWII started, the ICRC faced quite a challenge: getting access to Nazi concentration camps. It tried applying pressure to the country, but eventually quit pushing so that efforts could be focused on helping POWs from all countries. In 1943, the group finally achieved permission to send parcels to the concentration camp detainees with known names and locations. Because many packages were signed for by persons other than those to whom the package was addressed, the group managed to use these signatures to register the names of around 105,000 detainees in the camps.
In March of 1945, the SS allowed delegates to visit concentration camps with the condition that the delegates had to stay in the camps until the war ended. Ten delegates volunteered. One was able to prevent the blasting of Mauthausen-Gusen by American troops, saving 60,000 lives. Unfortunately, this went against the ICRC’s neutrality policy and circumvented their authority, so he was condemned by the organization. They did not apologize until 1990.
The ICRC received a second Nobel Peace Prize in 1944 for its work during the war: once again, the only prize awarded during that period. After the war, the ICRC worked with local Red Cross societies to help provide assistance to the countries most severely affected.
After the war, another convention was held to discuss international laws regarding civil populations during times of war. After all of the conventions and additional protocols were added, the Geneva Convention treaties contain over 600 articles. In around 150 years, the ideas of a Genevan businessman have helped rewrite the acceptable behaviors of countries at war and have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, while improving millions more.