The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is present and active in almost every country and comprises  around 100 million members and volunteers. It is united and guided by the seven Fundamental Principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality – which provide a universal standard of reference for all its members. Red Cross and Red Crescent activities have one central purpose: to prevent and alleviate human suffering, without discrimination, and to protect human dignity.

The Movement is made up of:

– the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC);

– National Societies;

– the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation).

The ICRC, the International Federation and each country’s National Society are independent organizations. Each has its own status and exercises no authority over the others. They meet every two years in the Council of Delegates and gather every four years, in principle, with representatives of the States party to the Geneva Conventions for an International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Roles and responsibilities

The Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement define the relationship between the Red Cross and Red Crescent institutions. The responsibilities of each of the Movement’s components were further clarified and refined by the Seville Agreement adopted by the Council of Delegates in 1997. The Seville Agreement confers on the ICRC the role of lead agency for international operations conducted by the Red Cross and Red Crescent in situations of armed conflict and internal strife, including activities fordisplaced people.

The ICRC is responsible for verifying that future National Societies meet the criteria for membership of the Movement and that they are in a position to conduct their activities in accordance with the Fundamental Principles. If so, the ICRC grants them official recognition. The National Society concerned may then apply to join the International Federation. In practice, however, applications are reviewed jointly by the ICRC and the International Federation.

Who’s who in the Movement

The International Committee of the Red Cross is the Movement’s founding body. In addition to carrying out operational activities to protect and assist victims of armed conflict, it is the promoter and custodian of international humanitarian law. It is also the guardian of the Fundamental Principles. In cooperation with the International Federation, it organizes the Movement’s statutory meetings.  

National Societies embody the work and principles of the Movement in more than 180 countries. National Societies act as auxiliaries to the public authorities of their own countries in the humanitarian field and provide a range of services including disaster relief and health and social programmes. In wartime, National Societies assist the affected civilian population and, where appropriate, support the army medical services. 

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies works on the basis of the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent  Movement to inspire, facilitate and promote all humanitarian activities carried out by its member National Societies to improve the situation of the most vulnerable people. Founded in 1919, the International Federation directs and coordinates international assistance of the Movement to victims of natural and technological disasters, to refugees and in health emergencies. It acts as the official representative of its member societies in the international field. It promotes cooperation between National Societies and strengthens their capacity to prepare effectively for disasters and to carry out health and social programmes. 

Emblems of humanity

From the very beginning, the ICRC’s founders recognized the need for a single, universal and easily recognizable emblem familiar to all. To their mind, the emblem had to protect not only people wounded in battle but also those bringing them aid. It was also to protect all medical units, including those of the enemy. The idea was that the mere sight of it would prompt combatants to show restraint and respect. The red cross on a white background (the reverse of the Swiss national flag) was adopted by the International Conference of 1863 (see p. 7) as the distinctive sign of societies bringing relief to wounded soldiers (the future National Societies). A year later it was recognized by a Diplomatic Conference as the distinctive sign of army medical services and sanctioned by humanitarian law with the adoption of the Geneva Convention of 1864. However, in 1876, the Ottoman Empire decided to use a red crescent instead of the red cross. Several States followed suit and in 1929 the red crescent in turn was granted official recognition, along with the Iranian red lion and sun (not currently in use).

Over the years, the Movement has been considering the possibility of introducing changes relating to the use of the emblem in order to tackle specific problems. Some Societies that wished to join the Movement were not comfortable with either of the existing emblems. The Magen David Adom, the Israeli Society, wanted to use its own symbol – the red shield of David – whereas other Societies prefered to use both the red cross and the red crescent. Neither were possible under the Geneva Conventions rules. In addition, in some conflicts, the use of the red cross or the red crescent could have created problems if misinterpreted by either party. To solve these problems, the Diplomatic Conference of December 2005 brought together the States party to the Geneva Conventions and adopted Additional Protocol III, creating a new emblem, the red crystal. This emblem, free from any religious, cultural or political connotations, gives States and National Societies greater flexibility in the use of the emblems and puts an end to the question of proliferation of emblems.

The National Societies already using the  red cross or the red crescent can continue to do so. Today, all of the 186 National Societies use  the same emblem as the medical services of the military forces in their country during conflict – the so-called protective use.

Use and misuse of the emblem

Use of the emblem as a protective device is the visible manifestation of the protection accorded by the Geneva Conventions to persons (members of army medical services, National Society volunteers, ICRC delegates, etc.), medical units (hospitals, first-aid posts, etc.) and means of transport. Use of the emblem as an indicative device shows that a person or object has a connection with the Movement. To void confusion with the emblem used as a protective device, the red cross, red crescent and red crystal used for indicative purposes are smaller in size. 

Misuse of the emblem as a protective device in time of war jeopardizes the entire protective system established by humanitarian law.

 Misuse of the emblem as an indicative device undermines its significance in the eyes of the public and thus diminishes its protective power in wartime. In cases of misuse of the emblem as a protective device, the ICRC’s role is to remind the belligerents of their duty to respect the emblem and of the steps to be taken against those making improper use of it, since primary responsibility for respecting the emblem lies with States.

 Where the emblem has been misused as an indicative device, the ICRC requests the National Society concerned to take the necessary action to stop such practices.