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Enter the red crystal

In the early hours of Wednesday, 8 December 2005, representatives of states, meeting in a diplomatic conference, adopted a Third Additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. History will record it as the moment the red crystal was born.

It was not an easy birth. Political issues almost overwhelmed the humanitarian arguments for the creation of an additional emblem. The hope of agreement by consensus was dashed. But in the end the vote produced a comfortable majority and Additional Protocol III became a reality.

The end to the conference was a dramatic climax to what has been a very long debate among states about the distinctive emblems used by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The decision in 1929 to recognize three emblems was meant to be definitive, but it never was. Over the years, the question of the emblem re-emerged, most notably in 1949. But there was never agreement on a solution.

The question came to a head again in the 1990s. In 1992, the then president of the ICRC, Cornelio Sommaruga, called publicly for the creation of an additional emblem “devoid of any religious, political, ethnic or other connotation”. Subsequently the Standing Commission of t he Red Cross and Red Crescent took up the issue, and in 1999 at the International Conference of t he R ed Cross and Red Crescent, governments and National Societies called for a comprehensive and lasting solution to the question of the emblem. The solution that emerged as the most likely to succeed was an additional emblem, created by a Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

What happens next?

So the red crystal exists, sitting equally alongside the red cross and red crescent. But what happens next?

The signing and ratification process for the Protocol will continue. In the weeks after its adoption, many countries signed the Protocol, but ratification will take time. The Protocol enters into force six months after two states have deposited their instruments of ratification or
accession with the Swiss government.

The next major event will be an International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent on 20-21 June2006 when states, National Societies, the International Federation and the ICRC will consider changes in the Movement’s statutes to reflect the new situation.

The proposed amendments are straightforward. The main changes would be in article 3 and in article 4 which lists the ten conditions for recognition of National Societies. Instead of saying that a society should use “the name and emblem of the Red Cross or Red Crescent in conformity with the Geneva Conventions”, it simply says, use “a name and distinctive emblem in conformity with the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols”.

This completes the integration of the red crystal into the Statutes but it also allows the use, by National Societies, of a double emblem, the red cross and red crescent together within the red crystal. A number of National Societies have wanted to do this in the past, but that little word or prevented it. Additional Protocol III not only creates the red crystal, it also varies the way states and their National Societies can use all of the emblems.

A lot of work will need to be done at national and international levels once the Statutes have been amended. In some countries there may need to be adjustments to national legislation so that National Societies can have access to the flexibility established by t he Protocol. T he ICR C and the International Federation will support this work with advice, recognizing that this new situation calls for clarity to ensure that everybody in the world has the same understanding of the opportunities now available.

An unfamiliar emblem

For many, both inside and outside the Movement, the red crystal is an unfamiliar design. So when will it become a reality in the eyes of a wider public?

It all depends on when and where the red crystal begins to be used. Additional Protocol III permits the ICRC and the International Federation to make temporary use of it in “exceptional circumstances”. States and their National Societies have the option to use it as well. However, it has been made very clear from the outset of the process that no state or National Society need change anything because of the adoption of the Protocol, unless, of course, they want to or decide that the red crystal should be used for a temporary or emergency purpose in conditions where their own emblem would not be perceived as neutral.

It has always been assumed that the red crystal would make its first appearance in two countries where there were unrecognized National Societies, Eritrea and Israel. Israel has already said it would use it, and hopes its society, the Magen David Adom (MDA), will be recognized by June and subsequently join the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Both the ICRC and the International Federation want to see the MDA as a full member of the Movement. They share the view expressed by many governments at the diplomatic conference which adopted the Protocol that the Memorandum of Understanding, signed between the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and the MDA in November 2005, will pave the way for full membership for the PRCS as well.

As for the 183 recognized National Societies, they already use either the red cross or the red crescent. It was one of the criteria for their recognition. But now there is an alternative emblem, would any of them consider a change?

A new option

The emblem is an emotive subject for the Movement. National Societies are strongly attached to their identity, summed up for most by the use of the red cross or red crescent symbol. But the red crystal creates a new option that was not there before — the possibility for a National Society to use both those emblems and to change its name to incorporate both ‘Red Cross’ and ‘Red Crescent’.

It is impossible to say now whether this ‘double emblem’ option will gain any support among existing recognized National Societies. A few have expressed interest. It is an important decision that can only be taken by a National Society on the basis of its own national law.

However, it is not difficult to imagine the type of country where the option might have some appeal. While still asserting the neutral nature of all the emblems, countries that have very culturally mixed populations might view using both the red cross and red crescent within the red crystal, by the National Society, as more appropriate to their particular situation. Such usage might also broaden the appeal of a National Society, bringing it additional donors and volunteers.

It is possible that countries with unrecognized National Societies, such as Eritrea, will opt for the red crystal with the double emblem within it. However, no decision has yet been taken.

Impact on the Movement

It is too early to be certain about this. Perhaps the most important impact in the short term will be on the universality of the Movement as new members join. This has been a priority for both the International Federation and the ICRC during the many years of the emblem debate. If the MDA, the PRCS and the Eritrean society can join soon, that will signify a major step forward for the Movement.

In the longer term, the adoption of the red crystal should end the danger of proliferation of the emblems and the fear that such a trend would weaken their essential role: protection on the battlefield. If that issue is truly behind us, then the Movement will really have fulfilled the desire of the 27th International Conference to find a comprehensive and lasting solution to the question of the emblem.


©Thierry Gassmann / ICRC
































Ian Piper
Ian Piper is ICRC senior editor in Geneva.


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