is the emblem debate all about?
The red cross and red crescent emblems are used in different countries:
to protect medical personnel, buildings and equipment in time of armed
conflict and to identify national Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations,
the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation
of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Over 180 countries use one or the other of these emblems but some find
it difficult to use either because they are seen as having religious connotations.
They would like to use other emblems, for example the red shield of David
in Israel or perhaps both the red crescent and red cross together in Eritrea.
This is not currently possible under the terms of the Geneva Conventions
and the statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
There are also cases, quite frequently in the modern world, when the emblem
used by one country is not well known in another. In such cases there
is a need for greater flexibility in the use of emblems so medical services
and humanitarian workers can be easily recognized and protected.
What's happening now?
The solution which seems likely to be acceptable involves the adoption
by governments and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of an
additional emblem, with the same status as the existing emblems recognized
by the Geneva Conventions. It would be completely free of national, religious,
political or ethnic connotations. The consultations conducted so far make
it likely that it would be used by countries which have difficulty using
any of the existing emblems.
This needs to be done in accordance with the requirements of international
law, for no emblem can be recognized as giving protection in time of conflict
unless it has been approved by governments in a treaty document (in this
case known as a "protocol" additional to the Geneva Conventions).
So consultations are proceeding with a view to holding a Diplomatic Conference
to consider and adopt a protocol as soon as possible.
What is the design and name for this new emblem?
The design which is being considered is composed of a red frame in the
shape of a square on edge on a white ground. As it will be recognized
by the third protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions, it is being
formally described as the "third Protocol emblem". The final
name for the distinctive emblem is still under consideration, but when
chosen it will be one which meets all of the criteria for use as a protective
device and at the same time is free of adverse connotations across all
of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement's official languages.
Why are there currently two emblems in use?
When the organization known today as the Red Cross and Red Crescent was
founded in the second half of the 19th century, it sought a universal
and easily recognizable emblem to protect medical personnel from attack
During the International Conference which debated this and established
the rules that have now become the Geneva Conventions, a red cross on
a white background was adopted as a neutral emblem. This was not a religious
symbol, it is simply the reversal of the colours of the Swiss flag. As
such, it was felt it would embody the fundamental requirement of neutrality.
However, the problem of other connotations soon became evident. In the
war between Russia and Turkey in 1876-1878 the Ottoman Empire, although
it had acceded to the Geneva Conventions of 1864 without any reservation,
declared that it would use the red crescent to mark its own ambulances
while respecting the red cross sign protecting enemy ambulances. This
use of the red crescent became the practice for the Ottoman Empire.
After lengthy discussions the diplomatic conference of 1929 agreed to
recognize the red crescent emblem, which was by then used by Egypt as
well as the newly-created Turkish republic, and the red lion and sun emblem
which was in use in Persia. The conference, in order to forestall further
requests in the future, made a point of stating that no new emblems would
Since that time, the red crescent emblem has become widely used by many
countries. Iran discontinued using the red lion and sun emblem in 1980
and now uses instead the red crescent. The Islamic Republic of Iran nevertheless
indicated their wish to preserve their right to eventually use the red
lion and sun. Proposals by other countries for alternative emblems have
not been agreed.
So what is the current issue?
The Society known as Magen David Adom in Israel has existed since 1930,
and Israel has argued that it should be able to use the symbol of the
Society as its emblem within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Other countries share Israel's inability to work with either of the existing
emblems and several have expressed interest in this option. The issue
now is when governments can agree to a protocol that will make this possible
within updated international law.
What is being done to resolve these issues?
A Diplomatic Conference, bringing together all 189 States party to the
Geneva Conventions, will be convened by Switzerland, as depositary for
the Geneva Conventions. It will consider a draft protocol to the Geneva
Conventions, which is essential to the objective of creating an additional
emblem. Consultations are currently under way with a view to the Conference
being held as soon as circumstances allow.
Once the protocol is adopted, it will be necessary to adapt the rules
of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to the protocol
so the new emblem can be used within the Movement's procedures. This step
is necessary because the protocol is a treaty between governments. The
Movement's members are not governments, they are National Societies, the
ICRC and the International Federation.
After these steps have been taken, the Movement's constituency will be
able to reflect true universality.
In the meantime, the Societies affected by this problem are receiving
the full benefits of operational cooperation within the Movement, for
the policy of the Movement is to be fully inclusive pending the adoption
of the protocol.
What is this draft protocol?
It is a text circulated as a draft by Switzerland, as depositary government
for the 1949 Geneva Conventions, as a basis for final negotiations by
states at a diplomatic conference. It was circulated on 12 October 2000,
and has been the subject of intensive consultations with governments and
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies since then.
The draft is the product of intensive work under the leadership of the
Standing Commission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
In November 1999, the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and
Red Crescent, which includes all the States and National Societies in
the Movement, agreed to set up a joint working group on the emblems with
the mandate to "find a comprehensive solution, as rapidly as possible,
which is acceptable to all parties in terms of substance and procedure".
The Joint Working Group, with 16 government members and 8 Movement experts
working together and representing all regions, cultures and sectors of
opinion, held two sessions and completed its work on 14 June 2000. It
agreed that a solution could be found by adopting a new treaty (to be
called the Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions). This
Protocol would create an additional emblem free of any national, religious
or other connotation. It also contains provisions relating to the use
for indicative purposes, within their national territory, of other approved
indicative signs by Societies unable to use either the red cross or the
red crescent. This would mean that Israel would be able to place the Magen
David Adom in the space and Eritrea could choose to place the double emblem
there, and other countries could place their red cross, red crescent or
double emblems there if they wished.
When will the protocol be agreed?
Switzerland, the convening country for the diplomatic conference necessary
for the adoption of the protocol, felt obliged to change the schedule
for the conference because the situation (in the Middle East) in October
2000 made it clear that a consensus could not be found for the protocol
project at that time. The conference will convene as soon as the situation
Despite this postponement, the project has lost none of its priority,
and Switzerland, as well as the ICRC and the International Federation,
remains fully committed to success as soon as possible. Consultations
on the text of the October 2000 draft protocol continue in order not to
lose momentum and to ensure all parties are ready when the time is right.
Must we have these Conferences? Why not just interpret the rules to
find a temporary solution?
The solution must be firmly based in law. Without international law, the
additional emblem could not have legal effect, which is vital in times
when protection is needed for medical services and the victims of armed
The significance of the protective value of the distinctive emblems is
sometimes overlooked in this debate. Emblems were, after all, originally
designed for the protection of the wounded in time of war, and that's
why there needs to be international legal certainty as the basis for any
new distinctive emblem.
Are we doing it too quickly?
The issue has been active ever since 1876, in one way or another. It has
been squarely on the negotiating table for the modern Movement since Israel
joined the Geneva Conventions. It has been the subject of active international
policy-making since 1995 when the Standing Commission set up a working
group on the issue. The issues are well known in all the countries most
The proposals now being debated were suggested as the basis for discussion
in October 1998. There have been intensive consultations since then, with
governments as well as National Societies.
So, it is not a case of working too fast. In fact, some others say the
work has been too slow, but it has been necessary to work very hard to
obtain a solution which is comprehensive, forward-looking and acceptable
What will happen to the emblem now in use in my country?
No change. Those countries which now use the red cross or the red crescent
can continue to do so. There will also be no change to the Geneva Conventions
which proclaim them as emblems.
It will, however, be possible for any country to decide to adopt the new
emblem, but this would be its own decision.
It will also be possible for a country to make use of the additional emblem
in conjunction with its own traditional emblem if that seems the best
way of providing protection to its armed forces medical services or its
Society's humanitarian workers in international field situations where
their own emblem is not well understood. But it is important to note that
when Societies want to use their name and emblem in another country they
are subject to the law of that country and can only work there with the
agreement of that country's Society as well as agreement from any countries
of transit. The use of emblems in any country is the responsibility of
that country under rules which have been in place since 1921.
Will the ICRC or the International Federation be using the new emblem?
Yes, when local circumstances dictate that this would be the best thing
to do for protection or safety reasons.
Is the Movement changing its name at the same time?
So what's the conclusion?
This issue is a priority for the Movement, and the progress achieved to
date is the result of widespread recognition of the need for a comprehensive
solution to problems faced by several countries. In addition, the Movement
felt it could not permit the continuation of a situation where there are
populations deprived of their right to a recognized national humanitarian
relief society because of an outdated legal impediment. There is now a
consensus supporting this conclusion. At the same time, the Movement is
determined to ensure that the Societies affected by this issue are able
to participate in all its operational activities while the work proceeds
towards the objective of the adoption of the third protocol.
So, it is possible to summarize the present situation as one in which
it has been broadly agreed that the goal of universality should be achieved
as soon as possible. It also seems to be accepted that this means the
creation of an additional emblem to meet the needs of those countries
that can't use any of the existing emblems. There is also recognition
of the fact that the Societies of some countries have been using their
own traditional emblem for many years, and should be able to continue
to do so in their own national territory.
Achieving the result at this time would make it possible for the Movement
to start the new millennium with the Geneva Conventions' universality
truly available to the governments and peoples of the world.