The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the largest global humanitarian network in the world with a mission to “alleviate human suffering, protect life and health, and uphold human dignity especially during armed conflicts and other emergencies.” However, the different parts and functions of the Movement are not always clearly understood. The purpose of this blog is to help readers understand what the Movement is, is not, and how they can be a part of it.
The Movement consists of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and 189 different National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. What unites all parts of the Movement is a commitment to upholding humanitarian principles which include humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. There are many kinds of assistance but humanitarian assistance alone is based on these principles. Neutrality just means humanitarian responders should not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature. Impartiality means humanitarian assistance must be provided on the basis of need and not because of nationality, race, religion, or political point of view. Universality means humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone – where it is needed, when it is needed, and for whom it is needed. Independence means humanitarian action must be distinct from the political, economic, military or other objectives that others may have with in the region where the assistance is being provided. You can go to the ICRC webpage to read more about these principles and why they are important.
The oldest part of the Movement is the ICRC, founded in 1863 by five Swiss men. One of them, Henry Dunant, had witnessed and written a book (“A Souvenir of Solferino”) about a horrific battle that took place on June 24, 1859 when armies from France and Sardinia fought Austrian forces in the northern Italian village of Solferino. A great many soldiers were seriously injured, far beyond the capacity of their respective militaries involved to care for them. Due to the lack of care, wounded soldiers suffered long, agonizing, and unnecessary deaths. In his book, Dunant asked “Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers”? That question gave birth to the ICRC. The following year, they succeeded in persuading governments to create national relief societies and to adopt the first Geneva Conventions. According to the Geneva Conventions, armies are obligated to care for wounded soldiers no matter what their side and medical services were to be identified and protected by the emblem of a red cross on a white background. To learn more about how international humanitarian law has evolved over time, take a look at the ICRC report entitled, “From Solferino to the Birth of Contemporary International Humanitarian Law”. You might also like the short ICRC video, “Rules of War in a Nutshell”
Today, one finds the ICRC in many of the most dangerous settings around the world providing services to conflict victims. The fact that they are a neutral responder, without a political agenda, helps them negotiate access to where they are most needed. ICRC’s work in conflict settings involves many different aspects including providing health care, addressing sexual violence, promoting respect for international humanitarian law, building the capacity of national societies, helping people to resume their livelihoods, reducing threats from mines and unexploded audience, restoring links between families who have been separated, and providing assistance to people with disabilities. ICRC also works discretely with different stakeholders to improve conditions for prisoners and detainees.
The vast majority of countries have a National Society – either a Red Cross, a Red Crescent, or in the case of Israel’s National Society (Magen David Adom) a Red Crystal. In countries that are affected by conflict and/or natural disasters, the National Society may be a critical humanitarian responder. In Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been instrumental in reaching conflict affected persons with goods and services, losing many of their members in the process.
In the United States, most people have had some exposure to the American Red Cross which was founded by Clara Barton and several colleagues on May 21, 1881. Today, the American Red Cross responds to domestic disasters throughout the year, provides volunteer support to American military personnel deployed overseas and their families at home, is the largest provider of First Aid/CPR training and blood supply services, and to a certain extent, is involved in supporting humanitarian assistance overseas. That could include re-uniting separated families, building the capacity of other national societies, supporting vaccination campaigns (for example through the Measles and Rubella Initiative), and contributing to trainings on international humanitarian law.
So what is the difference between the ICRC and the IFRC? The IFRC was not created until 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, with the objective of promoting coordination between the aforementioned National Societies to better respond to natural disasters, human-made disasters, and health emergencies. The IFRC has a secretariat in Geneva that mobilizes and coordinates, a General Assembly that meets every two years with representation from all member National Societies, and a Governing Board that provides leadership between the General Assembly meetings. The IFRC played an important role in the West Africa Ebola response by coordinating efforts to promote safe burials, educate and mobilize communities, tracing contacts of people who were confirmed to have Ebola, and providing psychosocial support to individuals and families who lost loved ones. Following the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, IFRC launched an emergency appeal to raise funds and mobilized a relief operation in support of the Nepali Red Cross. IFRC also launched an appeal to support European national societies providing services to refugees and migrants arriving in and traveling through Europe. Almost 65,000 volunteers in 28 countries have taken part. IFRC is also working with National Societies in the Western Hemisphere to prevent Zika through community education, mobilization, and vector control.
There are many ways to get involved in the Movement. Like any organization, National Societies need good staff. They also need large numbers of trained volunteers to assist with blood drives, respond to disasters, provide services to the armed forces, and to help with logistics and social media. You could also get involved with the Measles and Rubella Initiative. This is all good experience if you at thinking about a career in emergency response. Take a look at volunteer opportunities with the American Red Cross. You can also take advantage of Red Cross training programs by becoming certified in first aid and/or CPR. Another way to help is by regularly donating blood. One thing National Societies, the IFRC, and ICRC all have in common (in addition to a commitment to humanitarian principles of course) is a need for funding to maintain programs. Donating or holding fundraisers is another way to help out.
ICRC also has a number of global advocacy campaigns. One of these campaigns, “Health Care in Danger”, is devoted to preventing attacks against health care providers, facilities, and patients – a major problem in an increasingly violent world. Getting the word out is a big help, consider requesting and using the Campaign Toolkit that ICRC can provide to help you do just that. Another example is ICRC advocacy to encourage countries to adopt the Convention on Cluster Munitions, given the suffering they cause to civilians long after hostilities have concluded. If more people aware of the suffering caused by cluster munitions, many would demand change. The same could be said for the Mine Ban Convention.
In an increasingly violent world, the need for the Movement has never been greater. By giving our attention, time, and/or financial support all of us can play a part in helping the Movement to reach vulnerable populations in need of assistance around the world. Please feel free to share your thoughts or experiences volunteering or working with the Movement with me via my contact page or @bryan_schaaf on Twitter.