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The Red Cross and the frontline

SWISS man Henry Dunant was shocked by what he witnessed of war and the suffering it caused. In 1862 he published his book Memoir of Solferino about the inadequate treatment of the sick and wounded at the battle of that name.
He followed this up by establishing an organisation to care for those people. Thus was formed the Red Cross. It got its name from its symbol, a red cross on a white background. This was chosen because the organisation was founded in Switzerland and it is the reverse of the Swiss flag, a white cross on a red background. Because the cross is seen as a Christian symbol, it is replaced in Moslem countries with a red crescent.

While the Red Cross has many roles today it started, as an organisation, to care for war-wounded and prisoners. The International Red Cross, which is based in Geneva, is always neutral in all conflicts, is often used by belligerent countries to communicate with one another and cares for the well-being of prisoners of war.

Having started his organisation, Dunant realised that without international backing it would not be able to carry out its aims. He campaigned to get all countries to sign a treaty recognising the Red Cross, accepting its neutrality and allowing it to operate in war zones.  This did not prove too easy and it took some countries many years to accept the Red Cross; it took 20 years of campaigning to get the Untied States on board. Eventually 12 countries agreed to meet in Geneva and they adopted ten articles of agreement allowing the Red Cross to carry out its aims.

This agreement came to be known as the Geneva Convention. For these achievements, the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, Dunant shared the first ever Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. The convention deals with the treatment of people in time of war, people who are non-combatants or no longer taking part in hostilities such as the sick, wounded, prisoners and civilians. It does not deal with the conduct of warfare itself and the use of certain weapons. These items are covered by the Hague Conventions.

The Geneva Convention comprises four different conventions. Other conventions were added and ratified as years passed. The second convention, signed in 1906, extended the protection to the sick wounded and shipwrecked members of navies and various armed forces at sea. In 1929, negotiations dealt with the treatment of prisoners of war and this has been updated following on from some of the horrific conflicts which have taken place since. Arising out of the Second World War and particularly the information which came to light at the Nuremburg Trials, a fourth Convention was added in 1949 in connection with the protection of civilians. This 1949 agreement was ratified in whole or in part by 195 countries.

Enforcement of the terms of the Geneva Conventions is the responsibility of the Security Council of the United Nations. Most issues are resolved by treaties but, where necessary, the United Nations have recourse to the International Criminal Court.

The very first Geneva Convention, arising out of the formation of the Red Cross by Henry Dunant, was ratified by 12 countries on August 28, 1864 – 149 years ago this week.

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