1863 Jean Henri Dunant
The birth of the Red Cross & Red Cresent
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The Red Cross emerged from the desire to offer help, without discrimination. Across the world the organisation works according to the same seven fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

The mission of the Red Cross is to prevent and decrease human suffering wherever possible, protect the lives and health and guarantee respect for humans. The Red Cross does so by mobilising the power of compassion and solidary. She creates spaces in which vulnerable humans, voluntary aid workers and donors meet and embody our responsibility to support others.

The historical origins of the Red Cross can be traced back to the Swiss citizen Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910). While on a business trip in 1859, he was witness of the aftermath of the battle at Solferino in North Italy. France, Austria and Sardinia were involved, fighting over the independence of Italy. After the battle some 40.000 dead or wounded remained at the battlefield. Dunant was shocked by what he saw and worked three days and nights to help the wounded. With his message Tutti Fratelli! (“We are all brothers”) he mobilised women, church members and other volunteers.

Three years afterwards, in 1862, Dunant published A memory of Solferino in which he proposed to organise permanent national help organizations with volunteers who would care for the wounded during times of war and conflict. His plea was soon answered as already in February 1863, the international committee of the Red Cross met for the first time in Geneva. Apart from Henri Dunant, it consisted of Louis Appia, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Théodore Maunoir and Gustave Moynier. They adopted the red cross on a white background as their symbol, the inverse of the Swiss flag.
The principles were laid down officially in the first Geneva Convention in 1864. This established humanitarian war law. It was later followed by updates of the Geneva convention (e.g. to expand it to war at sea) and international humanitarian law, such as the universal declaration of human rights.

Henry Dunant received the very first Nobel prize for peace in 1901 for these achievements. The organisation he established was since rewarded three additional Nobel prizes (in 1917, 1944 and 1963). Since 1863, the Red Cross and its affiliated Red Crescent movement have grown into a movement of more than 190 national organisations and almost 100 million volunteers and staff, among them the Red Cresent in 1876 and the American Red Cross established by Clara Barton in 1881.
They are committed to help not only those harmed by war and armed conflict, but also to raise awareness and knowledge about first aid, being available as first aid responders at mass gatherings (sport events, manifestations, …) and advocating for humanitarian treatment of people even when society is under pressure, at times when normal legal systems and social security safety nets don’t function optimally. Other activities include providing help to refugees, re-establish family links among refugees, work on a sustainable living environment (supply of water!) in conflict areas, visits to political prisoners.

The international committee of the Red Cross is based in Geneva, its office building also hosting the beautiful International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum and the archive of these organisations.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 08-2017
Date of latest revision: 02-2019

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