The ICRC in a nutshell

Despite efforts to achieve world peace in the wake of two world wars, armed conflict remains a prominent feature of our human landscape. The resort to arms continues to be a means of settling differences between nations, peoples and ethnic groups, with the accompanying toll of death and  suffering.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded nearly a century and a half ago in recognition of this sad reality. It seeks to preserve a measure of humanity in the midst of war. Its guiding principle is that even in war there are limits: limits on how warfare is conducted and limits on how combatants behave. The set of rules that were established with this in mind and endorsed by nearly every nation in the world is known as international humanitarian law, of which the Geneva Conventions are the bedrock.

The ICRC’s special role was assigned to it by States through the various instruments of humanitarian law. However, while it maintains a constant dialogue with States, it insists at all times on its independence. For, only if it is free to act independently of any government or other authority, can the ICRC serve the true interests of the victims of conflict, which lie at the heart of its humanitarian mission.

Origins and history

The ICRC owes its origins to the vision and determination of one man: Henry Dunant. The date: 24 June 1859. The place: Solferino, a town in northern Italy. The Austrian and French armies were locked in bitter battle and, after 16 hours of fighting, the ground was strewn with 40,000 dead and wounded.  That same evening, Dunant, a Swiss citizen, passed through the area on business. He was horrified by the sight of thousands of soldiers from both armies left to suffer for want of medical care. He appealed to the local people to help him tend the wounded, insisting that soldiers on both sides should be treated equally.

On his return to Switzerland, Dunant published A Memory of Solferino, in which he made two solemn appeals: 

– for relief societies to be formed in peacetime, with nurses who would be ready to care for the wounded in wartime;

 – for these volunteers, who would be called upon to assist the army medical services, to be recognized and protected through an international agreement.

 In 1863, a charitable association known as the Geneva Society for Public Welfare set up a five-member commission to consider how Dunant’s ideas could be made a reality. This commission – made up of Gustave Moynier, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Louis Appia, Théodore Maunoir and Dunant himself – founded the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Legal status

 The ICRC is a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization. Its mandate to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict has been conferred on it by States through the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005, worthy successors to the First Geneva Convention of 1864.

The ICRC’s mandate and legal status set it apart both from intergovernmental agencies, such as United Nations organizations, and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In most of the countries in which it works, the ICRC has concluded headquarters agreements with the authorities. Through these agreements, which are subject to international law, the ICRC enjoys the privileges and immunities usually only granted to intergovernmental organizations, such as immunity from legal process, which protects it from administrative and judicial proceedings, and inviolability of its premises, archives and other documents. Such privileges and immunities are indispensable for the ICRC because they guarantee two conditions essential to its action, namely neutrality and independence.

The organization has concluded such an agreement with Switzerland, thus guaranteeing its independence and freedom of action from the Swiss government.