The Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblem

About the emblem

Questions and Answers
May 27, 2002

What 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 conflicts.
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 be recognized.
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 permits.
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 conflict.
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 directly concerned.
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 to all.

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?

No.

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.


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