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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  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    It is sad that we still need the Red Cross... but fantastic that they are still there, refusing to ignore any crisis big or small - be it saving lives from hoodlums in Syria or loaning me a wheelchair for a couple of months after I had a stroke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The history of the Red Cross may not be perfect (but which one of us is perfect) but it is a shining example of the good people can do when they put providing a service to those who need it in front of making a fast buck. As we see company after company engufed in unethical behaviour, it is good to see an organisation that is ethical to its core.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I used to work for a local charity supporting vulnerable adults and the Red Cross provided valuable work experience for these people.
    The work they do at home and abroad providing humanitarian aid is just fantastic. Those who ridicule their work may just want to experience front line duties these wonderful people do.

    Happy 150 Anniversary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The sad thing is that human beings are so self-destructive that it requires an organisation like the Red Cross to have to exist at all. One day we`ll learn as a species, but i doubt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Red Cross and the hundreds of thousands (millions) of unnamed heroes who have worked behind the scenes to deliver so much good work, in so many ways, to so many people in need. Thank you!


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