In the Beginning… There was Henry Dunant

Did you know?

May 8th, is World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is celebrating 150 years of humanitarian action.

How did it all begin?

In 1859, a man named Jean Henri Dunant, also known as Henry Dunant was appalled at the fate of wounded soldiers on both sides of the battle between French and Austrian forces at Solferino. His attempts to help inspired two ideas about a humanitarian response to assist the victims of armed conflicts. He believed that armies should be obliged to care for all wounded soldiers and that a national society should be formed to support military medical services. With the help of the Public Welfare Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, Dunant was able to enact his vision of a national society and by October 1863, an international conference was convened to spread his humanitarian vision to countries all over the world.

The conference adopted the emblem of a red cross on a white background so that medical personnel could be easily identified on the battlefield. The Ottoman Empire adopted the red crescent in the 1870’s, as it was more in keeping with their Islamic faith. In December 2005, an additional emblem – the red crystal – was created alongside the red cross and the red crescent.

Now, the ICRC plays a vital role in helping victims of war, conflict and disaster all over the world. It has a permanent mandate to help prisoners, care for the wounded and sick, and assist civilians affected by conflict. According to the ICRC website, every day Red Cross workers ease the pain and disruption of war by:

  • Providing medical assistance for war wounded, displaced people and others affected by armed conflicts
  • Educating others about international humanitarian laws
  • Exchanging messages between members of families separated by armed conflict
  • Helping discover the fate of missing family members
  • Providing emergency relief such as water, sanitation, food, shelter

The ICRC is at work in 92 countries and has a staff of almost 13,000 people. The mission is enormously challenging. There has been a proliferation of new weaponry and military technology sometimes outpaces humanitarian law. Disintegrating nations spawn multiple military factions that are new to the task of warfare and unaware of the international humanitarian laws that govern their actions.

Despite these challenges, the ICRC is committed to remaining a neutral actor in these conflicts in order to assist innocent civilians, children, the wounded and sick and detainees deprived to basic human rights.

The idea of an organized humanitarian response to war and disaster was an important step forward for those who believe that the relief of unnecessary suffering is part of a civilized world.

In fact, here is the story of an idea…
This film, combining colourful animation with recent images, brings to life the history of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement from Henry Dunant and the Battle of Solferino through to today. The film explains the meaning of the Geneva Conventions, the universal humanitarian principles underlying the Movement’s efforts and the general activities carried out by the different components, the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the National Societies, as they work together to help those in need.

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