Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Spotlight on Red Cross humanitarian ethos on its 50th anniversary

The Fundamental Principles which are central to the global humanitarian ethos of the International Red Cross Red Crescent movement will be analysed at a conference organised jointly by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Exeter. 

The two-day conference will be held at the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva, which has long been the worldwide centre for international humanitarianism.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are this year celebrating 50 years since the official endorsement of the seven core principles that form the very identity of the movement and that act as a touchstone for every conflict zone in which the Red Cross is involved.

The fundamental principles have become part of the day-to-day vocabulary of humanitarian action. They are: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. Together, they are designed to encourage respect for other human beings and a willingness to work together to bring humanitarian assistance and protection to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The organisation’s ethos means they will only work where they can engage with all parties to a conflict, and bring aid and relief to all of its victims, regardless of their religion, race, or political affiliation. Humanitarian need is always the number one priority.

Professor Andrew Thompson, a historian at the University of Exeter, said: “The Red Cross has long had a track record of proximity to victims and of being able to access conflict zones which many other organisations cannot enter. In order to negotiate effectively with warring factions to deliver aid, they have to demonstrate their impartiality. This stance has repeatedly been subject to intense political and ideological pressures, from Cold War rivalries between Capitalist and Communist worlds 50 years ago, to the conflicts in Syria and the Yemen today. Over the past half century, the Fundamental Principles have helped enable the organisation to resist those pressures and to remain focussed on delivering frontline humanitarian aid where it is desperately needed. Now, in the midst of what has been called the “Global War on Terror”, it is time to open a new dialogue on whether they are still fit for purpose, and whether and in what ways they need to evolve. Our conference is a first step on that journey.”

The conference Connecting with the Past – the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement in Critical Historical Perspective, held on September 16 and 17, is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research council (AHRC) and will be attended by international delegates from ICRC and other humanitarian organisations. A highlight of the event is the evening public debate, at which ICRC President Peter Maurer and Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director Jane Cocking will speak, available to watch online. It is planned that outputs will be fed into the ICRC’s International Conference in December, the supreme deliberative body of the RCRC Movement that takes place every four years. The International Conference provides a unique forum in which States and the components of the RCRC Movement sit together to examine and take decisions on key humanitarian issues.

The Red Cross idea was born in 1859, when young Swiss man Henry Dunant came upon the scene of a bloody battle in Solferino, Italy, where 40,000 men lay dead or dying on the battlefield and the wounded were lacking medical attention. He organised local people to bind soldiers' wounds and to feed and comfort them. On his return, he called for the creation of national relief societies to assist those wounded in war, and pointed the way to the future Geneva Conventions. The movement snowballed, and the ICRC was established in 1863. Today, it comprises 189 member Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, a secretariat in Geneva and more than 60 delegations strategically located to support activities around the world. There are more societies in formation. The Red Crescent is used in place of the Red Cross in many Islamic countries.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, the ICRC has allowed Professor Thompson unprecedented access to its archives, which he is using to research an upcoming book on humanitarianism.

Date: 17 September 2015

Read more University News