History of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention

Published on June 14, 2021

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The Red Cross, is a humanitarian organization that provides emergency assistance, disaster relief, and disaster preparedness education around the world.

It is easily recognizable for the symbol they wear most of the world: A red cross.

But what’s behind all that?. Well, a big worldwide humanitarian movement, let’s talk about its story and its way to work.

The Battle of Solferino was held in Italy in the mid-XIX Century, between Austria and a French-Italian alliance. The conflict left around 35 000 casualties, and the medical teams weren’t enough to help all wounded soldiers left on the battlefield.

A Swiss businessman called Henri Dunant was traveling around there and was horrified by the battle’s aftermath, so he helped organize people around to bring aid to the wounded soldiers from both sides, and encouraged the french-alliance army to release captured Austrian doctors to help. He also financed the creation of makeshift hospitals.

Some years later, he wrote a book, “A Memory of Solferino,” in which he suggested the creation of non-combatant teams to provide medical help to the wounded of both sides, it also promoted the idea of guaranteed international protection for those aid teams. That book was widely distributed and reached the hands of relevant European figures.

Then, the Genevese Public Welfare Organization set-up a five-person team to consider and shape Dunant’s ideas, being Dunant himself a member of it. Some weeks later, they organized an international conference with delegates around Europe to discuss the committee’s plans and launching the Red Cross movement.

The symbol of the red cross is the reverse version of the Swiss flag. Thirty-three states in the Muslim World use the Red Crescent symbol, as the reversal of the Ottoman Empire flag, and Israel’s emergency services use the Red Crystal symbol.

The next year, the Swiss Government organized a conference where delegates around Europe, US, Mexico, and Brazil signed the first of four Geneve Conventions, aiming for the implementation of Dunant’s ideas. Months later, the first Red Cross volunteers were seen in action in Denmark.

In this period Gustave Moynier, a member of Dunant’s committee, became president, named it the International Committee of the Red Cross and fired Dunant from the team. The movement expanded across Europe and won the Peace Nobel Prize in 1901, and in the coming years, after the second version of Geneva Convention, the movement arrived in Latin America, Asian and African countries.

World War I meant the first big challenge for the Red Cross, volunteers outside Europe traveled to support European countries during the war. Also, the committee set-up the International Prisoners-Of-War Agency, which cared about the guaranteed protection of people jailed during the war. Due to the agency intervention, thousands of prisoners were exchanged between war sides, released from captivity or returned home.

During the war, the POW agency published postcards of prisoners in their daily life, doing activities that didn’t affect their integrity, with the goal to keeping hope alive in their families and inform about their wellness.

Then in 1919, Henri Davison, president of the America Red Cross, led the foundation of the League of Red Cross Societies, later renamed to International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with the goal of expanding Red Cross’ activities beyond ICRC law, including response to emergency situations not caused by war, like natural or man-made disasters. Every national society is a member of this movement.

League’s foundation was met with controversy due to the potential rivalry against the original Red Cross’ committee; its first mission involved an aid organized in Poland for the victims of a famine and typhus epidemic.

For the II World War, the Red Cross kept its mission on POWs, but its response to the Jewish Holocaust was criticized as indifferent: the movement allegued that they were trying to keep its neutrality reputation and not interfiering with political matters. The Nazis held control of the German Red Cross, difficulting their cooperation during the conflict.

The Red Cross got permission from the SS to visit concentration camps, only if the delegates stayed until the end of the war. Ten delegates accepted those conditions and attended the concentration camps.

Nowadays, the movement is present in 190 countries around the world, has 97 million members and volunteers helping around 233 million people per year. They get funded by donations from different states and organizations around the world, private companies or even individuals.


Here at Explainosphere, we like explaining things. As curious and eccentric as they may seem, we believe there is always someone, somewhere, trying to figure out how things work.

If we answered your question about the Red Cross, leave us a message in the comments.

Who Funds the International Red Cross

Who Funds the International Red Cross, History of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.

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