Red Cross celebrates 150th anniversary


The work of the ICRC, in some of the most dangerous places in the world

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As it turns 150, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it faces unprecedented challenges in the complex age of modern warfare.

These include "new weapons [and] new types of actors coming into conflict", ICRC chief Peter Maurer said.

The world's oldest aid organisation recently warned it was unable to cope with the "catastrophic" humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The movement currently employs 13,000 people working in 92 countries.

It was founded by a Geneva businessman, Henri Dunant, in 1863 in response to the suffering of injured soldiers abandoned on the battlefield of Solferino in northern Italy.

Horrified by what he saw, he documented the slaughter in his book, A Memory of Solferino, and decided to create an organisation dedicated to helping war wounded.

Shifting frontlines

Today, the ICRC, together with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, has become a worldwide movement with tens of thousands of workers and volunteers.

Red Cross: Key dates

ICRC headquarters in Geneva
  • 7 February 1863: Launch of the International Committee for Relief to Wounded Soldiers, later to become the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  • 26-29 October 1863: Creation of National Societies and adoption of the red cross as a protective emblem
  • 22 August 1864: The original Geneva Convention is adopted to protect the sick and wounded in armies in the field. Paves the way for the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
  • 27 July 1929: Red crescent is officially recognised as a protective emblem.

In addition to delivering aid, the organisation also aims to ensure that the rules of war are respected in conflict zones, and has a responsibility for looking after the rights of prisoners of war.

But the organisation now faces challenges not foreseen in the original Geneva conventions, the BBC's Imogen Foulkes reports.

At Solferino, there was just one civilian casualty, whereas nowadays it is estimated civilians make up more than 90% of war victims.

Warfare in the 21st Century is complex and chaotic, in part because of new weapons such as drones, conflicts - like that in Syria - with multiple armed groups, and shifting frontlines, Mr Maurer told our correspondent.

"We see conflicts when one convoy has to overcome 35 roadblocks before the convoy gets to areas where food and medicine can be distributed," Mr Maurer said.

Last November, the ICRC issued a warning over Syria's escalating humanitarian crisis.

The constantly moving nature of the conflict meant it could not plan, but instead had to seize opportunities for aid delivery on a day-to-day basis, the organisation said.

As a result, relief workers were unable to access certain parts of the country.

Despite its strong reputation, the record of the ICRC is not perfect, our correspondent says.

Its policy of confidentiality led it to keep silent about Nazi concentration camps in WW2, she explains.

Confronted by widespread criticism, the organisation was later forced to issue an apology. It said it had feared that speaking out would jeopardise its access to allied prisoners.


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  • Comment number 89.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    69 Adam: Impartiality gains long term trust and respect-it is that that allows the RC to do the work they do-it is understood they provide support for ALL. Who the enemy is is a perspective-I am my enemy's enemy!
    81 navigatorjan: The young graduate was volunteering, not for the RC but for places more aligned to her degree. Being forced to take the Poundland job required her to stop volunteering!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    " 4.fuzzy
    10 Hours ago
    they weren't available people might be more careful, and in the case of the Red Cross, less willing to go to fight in wars. But it's a dilemma."

    Im not sure if this is irony or not given the world was full of wars for several thousand of years before the Red Cross came into existence.

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    The Red Cross, another great charity to succumb to the bullying street chug culture

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    75 Ian: Several people have said the RC has become politicized but none give any examples. The Red Crescent has the same loyalties as the Red Cross, just a different name due to sensitivities, but they follow the same codes.
    74 Telanian: Contempt and ridicule cause conflict. Even if you do not agree, it is important to have respect for differences, even a faith you do not share.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The worst thing about this story is that we still need the Red Cross.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I have a postcard taken in a German prisoner of war camp (during WW1) showing a picture of my greatuncle in his uniform and posted to his brother, my grandfather, to show he was safe and well (as could be expected under the circumstances). I have been told this was organised by the Red Cross.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Perhaps if the young geology graduate had been volunteering for the Red Cross, she might have found something more worthwhile to do and found herself a proper job. Then she wouldn't have been sent to Poundland,
    The Red Cross is an extremely worthwhile (and laudable) organisation. Long may they continue!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    What an organisation. They were respected even by the German regime in WWII, and today even get respected by ideologies of religious nature.
    What a great name Red Cross has established across the civilised world!
    Essential to retain humanity, but sad we shall have to wait for the terrorists to join us. Still it shows that the world is progressing.
    Here`s to the next 100yrs red Cross!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    If people wish to pray or worship God, Allah or Jesus then that is fine.

    Just let the professionals of the Red Cross stop the blood from gushing out first.

    Keep up the great work guys!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The Red Cross has done a good job and so have the various Geneva protocols, however people don't seem to understand much about war and why it occurs (read Clautzwitz). War is the inevitable outcome of all conflict that has been escalated to the point where someone says "one of us has to die", as long as there is conflict among humans the possibility of war remains

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Another weak story for the BBC to use the comments section. Who makes the decision on which topics include HYS? Come on BBC don't waste the feature on fluff like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    69 Adam

    "people will lose respect for an organisation remaining impartial. Especially if they see them as providing support for the enemy"

    In my opinion it's essential that they remain impartial. After all who are they to decide who is right or wrong in such a complicated struggle?

    All civil wars are tragic as families and friends suddenly fight against each other. There are no enemies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    The Red Cross has become politicised and seems to be run by the nose by the Red Crescent...and we know where the Red Crescent's loyalties lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.


    Brilliant comment; I agree entirely, except for one tiny detail: faith has no place. Faith is nothing more than the excuse people give for believing something in the absence of evidence. It deserves no respect, and should be treated with ridicule and contempt wherever it is found.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    The people may support the Red Cross for their selfless humanitarian actions, unfortunately the same can't be said of the government

    During Operation Cast Lead, Israel targeted children with illegal white phosphorus munitions hiding in a UNICEF/ Red Cross compound in Gaza

    British and EU governments did nothing. Imagine the outrage if that was Assad. We should be ashamend of our leaders

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Congratulations to The Red Cross. 150 Years

    Doing the work of mankind as selfless as you, can only be an inspiration to us all.

    Showing that Modern Medicine will always trump the work of primitive medicine and prayer.

    Your work shines like a beacon for modern science and medicine rolling back the darkness of superstition and ignorance

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    41 samb-1488: "The red cross might provide humanitarian aid, but surely the best kind of aid is teaching people to love Jesus, and that the power of prayer will do far more good than any doctor can hope to do in a lifetime!"

    No, not really. The best kind of aid is that which keeps somebody from bleeding to death on a battlefield. Given a choice between a preacher and a doctor I'll take the doctor

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    HAPPY 150th God Bless all Red Cross and Similar workers !!!


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