The power of a sign | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 09.05.2012
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The power of a sign

No other aid organization is as well-known as the Red Cross. It's even been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize more than once. The controversy is in the name - allegedly, a symbol of Christianity.

"Brain matter splatters from bursting heads, limbs are broken and crushed, bodies become formless masses. The earth is literally drenched with blood. And the plains are strewn with the unrecognizable remains of human beings," Swiss businessman Henry Dunant described the battle of Solferino in northern Italy that he witnessed on June 24, 1859.

It was one of the bloodiest clashes in the 19th century, and left thousands of Austrian and French soldiers dead, and tens-of-thousands wounded. Dunant was so shocked that he set up a military hospital in a near-by church, mobilizing the local population to help him care for the wounded.

A role model

Four years later, with the support of friends and politicians alike, Dunant founded the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Within months, he managed to get 12 states to sign the 1st Geneva Convention for the protection of wounded soldiers. In 1901, he was awarded the very first Nobel Peace Prize. His birthday, May 8, is commemorated as "International Red Cross Day."

A mobile Red Cross hospital

A mobile Red Cross hospital

Henry Dunant proposed a red cross on a white background as a uniform symbol and protective sign. It was not meant to be a symbol of Christianity, Frank Mohrhauer of the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC) told DW: rather he was thinking of "the reverse colors of the Swiss national flag. In those days, people didn't take into account that symbols always trigger very strong emotions." Thus, the cross has been a cause for conflict from time to time throughout the organization's 149-year history.

Dispute over emblems

In the 1876-1878 war against Russia, the Ottoman Empire used a Red Crescent symbol, arguing that a red cross would offend the troops' religious feelings. The ICRC didn't object and both sides recognized the other's safety symbol.

As a result, Persia in 1924 flew a banner with a red lion and sun, used, - again, no objection from the ICRC - until 1980. The Israeli organization Magen David Adom chose a Star of David as its protective sign in 1930. When the ICRC federation was called on to recognize the group officially, several Arab nations put on the brakes because of the symbol - for more than 25 years. The debate continued to escalate, some members refused recognition of the Israeli organization, others retaliated by refusing to recognize the Palestinian aid organization.

A neutral symbol

The breakthrough compromise came in 2005. Within Israel, the Star of David may be used as a protective sign, but everywhere else, it must be embedded in the Red Crystal.

Frank Mohrhauer said it would have been almost impossible to abolish the Star of David as a protective sign. "We discussed whether we all should give up our crosses and crescents and agree on a neutral sign," he said. "But that would have been impossible. If we had introduced the Red Crystal in Germany to substitute the Red Cross, we would have lost all our members here."

Recognizable and visible

Rudolf Michalke of tgeh Red Cross international search service

The Red Cross also runs international search services

The paralyzing quarrel over the Star of David is a thing of the past, today, both the Israeli and the Palestinian organizations are members of the federation and work well together. "If there's an accident somewhere in the West Bank, the organizations have to cooperate," Mohrhauer said. "The paramedics help each other."

153 of the 187 national societies use the Red Cross emblem, 33 use the Red Crescent and Israel uses the Red Crystal. Kasachstan and Eritrea, where Islam and Christianity play equally important roles, are planning to introduce a combined cross-crescent emblem.

Next year, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement - the world's largest humanitarian movement - celebrates the 150th anniversary of its origin, the International Committee.

Emergency aid

An illustration showing the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and red crystal,

The protective signs are all on a par today

Today, almost 100 million people worldwide care for victims of war and natural disasters and safeguard medical care in crisis areas. The German Red Cross (DRK) has the makings of a mobile hospital - used successfully in Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake there - ready to be flown from Potsdam to crisis areas within just two days.

The Red Cross societies also advocate human rights, try to enable access to prisoners and seek dialogue with political leaders. "It's the only organization in the world that is not just a movement created by people but recognized by governments," Frank Mohrhauer said.

That garnered the movement three more Nobel Peace prizes: between the two World Wars, in 1917 and 1944, and again on the occasion of the ICRC's 100th anniversary in 1963. Perhaps it's time for yet another award in 2013, the 150th year of the founding of the ICRC.

Author: Klaus Dahmann / db
Editor: Neil King

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