The ICRC

Anniversary of the ICRC

June 24 2009 marked 150 years since the Red Cross movement was conceived. That day, the world’s media overlooked it. Relwar Project researchers first addressed this oversight in the article ‘Why do we ignore the Red Cross?’. Our continuing research interests and partnerships reflect an ongoing interest in the strengthening of global support for the work of the ICRC.

Further materials on the relationship between ethics and religion in the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies may be found below.

Religious Symbols, Religious Institutions and the History of the International Red Cross Movement

On 24 June 1859, Henri Dunant conceived of a humanitarian organisation which would aid casualties of war regardless of their nationality or background. This became the International Committee of the Red Cross, formally established in 1863. The organisation has from the outset sought to safeguard its neutrality against all accusations of favouring Western Christian nations or ideals, and an avowed secularism has played an important role in its ability to spread to non-Christian states in Asia and Africa.

150 years since its conception, the International Committee of the Red Cross plays a central role in the advancement of international humanitarian protection, and regularly encounters debates over clashing systems of humanitarian ethics wherever it works. While religious communities have proven crucial partners for the ICRC, religion has from its earliest days also been invoked against the work of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross emblem has stirred religious and nationalist resentment since the nineteenth century. The Ottomans founded the first Red Crescent Society following war with Russia in 1868, perceiving the Red Cross to be an emblem of the Crusader past. While some perceive the Red Crescent as an Islamic symbol, it was originally taken by the Ottomans from their Byzantine Christian predecessors. The symbol for the Iranian Red Lion and Sun Society was chosen at the Society’s foundation in 1922 after a rejection of the crescent as an Ottoman symbol. Following the revolution of 1989, this was abandoned in favour of the title Iranian Red Crescent. A ‘Red Star of David Society’ (Magen David Adom) was only established in 1930, as a response to the experience of Palestinian Jews during the riots of the previous year.

Since 1919, the Red Cross has been federated with the Red Crescent Societies, and any residual mistrust is balanced by a regular and close cooperation. Controversy over the perceived Christian associations of the Red Cross delayed the founding of a Japanese Red Cross Society until 1887, and continued to trouble the political reception of the humanitarian standards of the Red Cross in Japan for many years thereafter. The effective exclusion of the Israeli Magen David Adom until 2006 has left continuing mistrust amongst many Jews about the International Red Cross movement, though Jews have also been prominent and active supporters of the Red Cross since the nineteenth century, and there were Jewish contributors to Red Crescent societies from early in their history (historians are, for instance, currently investigating an organisation for Jewish physicians described as the Hebrew Ottoman Red Crescent Society).

The challenges of gaining acceptance for the Red Cross in conflict situations may have no specific religious content, and yet at the same time also carry complex political and religious resonances. This can be seen from the process whereby the title of the Red Cross member organisation in Bosnia-Herzegovina was determined. In the wake of the war of the 1990s, Red Cross staff worked to deal with a range of local perceptions about its neutrality and purpose. Two Red Cross societies were created on the two warring sides, and negotiations to merge them into a single society succeeded in 2000. These sensitivities of both parties to the negotiation led to the decision that the national Red Cross Society should be entitled ‘Društvo Crvenog krsta/križa BiH’. This recognised the different pronunciations of ‘cross’ present in different parts of the country, which were associated with the identities of the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, or, as  it was commonly understood, with Serb and Bosnian/Croat political identities. The political background reflected a heated contest over language and nationality, with a religious twist: the two words for ‘cross’ were commonly, if controversially, identified with Orthodox Christian and with Catholic or Muslim populations, enough that the Society adopted both alternatives. A signal that the controversy related primarily to national and not religious politics: the largest of the three populations remained Muslim, though the national society did not add ‘crescent’ to its title.

Today, the ICRC is charged with pressing the parties to the Geneva Conventions to respect the sanctuary provided by religious buildings and the non-combatant immunities of religious clergy. The destruction of religious buildings and targetting of religious figures in recent conflicts from the Balkans to the Middle East and South-East Asia underlines the challenges they face in ensuring a neutral, secular space which encompasses continuing religious plurality. For Red Crescent Societies, Eid/Bajram is a natural focus for giving and for the distribution of additional relief to those in need. That this is in many cases true of Christmas for Red Cross Societies does not diminish the Societies determination to act with impartiality and in a spirit of religious neutrality.

The Religion and Ethics in War and Peace-Making Programme promotes cautious dialogue and scholarship about the sensitive points at which the work of the ICRC encounters religious tensions, and equally highlights documents which treat the positive relationship between humanitarian work and religious communities. This space on the website is, lastly, also designed to draw attention to the unsung dedication of the men and women of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movements, to the ethical dilemmas they face, and to the challenges placed in their way by other parties.

Links to scholarship on the ICRC, religion & ethics:

Margaret Kosuge, ‘Religion, The Red Cross and the Japanese and the Japanese Treatment of POWs’, in Philip Towle, Margaret Kosuge, Yōichi Kibata, eds, Japanese Prisoners of War, Continuum, 2000, 149-162.

Margaret Kosuge, The “non-religious” red cross emblem and Japan, International Review of the Red Cross, 2003, No. 843.

Andreas Wigger, Encountering perceptions in parts of the Muslim world and their impact on the ICRC’s ability to be effective, International Review of the Red Cross, 2005, no. 858.

Anne-Marie Holenstein, Governmental donor agencies and faith-based organizations, International Review of the Red Cross, 2005, No. 858.

Stefan Lunze, Serving God and Caesar: Religious personnel and their protection in armed conflict, International Review of the Red Cross, 2004, No. 853.

Medical and religious personnel, medical units, transports and material, International Review of the Red Cross.

Ronald Ofteringer, ‘The dialectics of perception, acceptance and meaningful action’,  in Caroline Abu-Sada, ed., In The Eyes of Others (MSF, 2012), 173-182: http://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/msf-in-the-eyes-of-others.pdf

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ICRC Documents on Humanitarian Ethics and Religion:

International Review of the Red Cross, 2005 – No. 858. Theme – Religion.

Includes the following articles:

  1. Editorial
  2. Interview with Ahmad Ali Noorbala, President of the National Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical Faculty of Tehran University.
  3. Sheikh Wahbeh M. al-Zuhili, Islam and international law.
  4. Hans Kung, Religion, violence and “holy wars”.
  5. Manoj Kumar Sinha, Hinduism and international humanitarian law.
  6. Norman Solomon, Judaism and the ethics of war.
  7. Elizabeth Ferris, Faith-based and secular humanitarian organizations.
  8. Jamal Krafess, The influence of the Muslim religion in humanitarian aid.
  9. Andreas Wigger, Encountering perceptions in parts of the Muslim world and their impact on the ICRC’s ability to be effective.
  10. Anne-Marie Holenstein, Governmental donor agencies and faith-based organizations.

See also:

Stefan Lunze, Serving God and Ceasar: Religious personnel and their protection in armed conflict, International Review of the Red Cross, 2004, No. 853

Sylvain Froidevaux, Humanitarian action, religious ritual and death, International Review of the Red Cross, 2002, No. 848.

Wolf R. Dombrowsky, Lessons learned? Disasters, rapid change and globalization, International Review of the Red Cross, 2007, No. 866.

Joost Hiltermann, A new sectarian threat in the Middle East?, International Review of the Red Cross, 2007, No. 868.

Pierre-Jean Luizard, Islam as a point of reference for political and social groups in Iraq, International Review of the Red Cross, 2007, No. 868.

Giorgio Filibeck, Restoring a just order in post-conflict situations in the light of the social teachings of the Catholic Church, International Review of the Red Cross, 1998, No. 322.

Medical and religious personnel, medical units, transports and material, ICRC website.

Debate on humanitarian law, policy and action: protection of victims of armed conflict under Islamic law and international humanitarian law, ICRC website. A feature produced after a series of Red Cross seminars in Islamabad, Aden and Fes.

Jean-François Berger, Iran: dialogue on Islam and international humanitarian law in Qom, ICRC website. See also Andreas Wigger, Conference on IHL and Islam in Iran.

Marion Harroff-Tavel, Principles under fire: does it still make sense to be neutral?, ICRC website, 2003.

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