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Profile: International Committee of the Red Cross

International Committee of the Red Cross HQ, Switzerland
ICRC's Geneva HQ: The organisation aims to:
Protect those involved in conflicts
Monitor the welfare of prisoners of war
Provide water, food, medicine to those in need
Monitor compliance with humanitarian law

The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, is a humanitarian organisation which aims to help those caught up in armed conflicts around the globe.

Its work is guided by seven principles - humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

The organisation is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions - the system of humanitarian safeguards that sets out the way in which wars may be fought.

The roots of the movement lie in the battleground of Solferino, where in 1859 Franco-Sardinian forces were trying to drive the Austrians out of Italy.

OVERVIEW


OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

A Swiss businessman, Jean Henri Dunant, saw that thousands of wounded soldiers had been left to die. He organised help from a nearby town and arranged care for the wounded, regardless of their nationality.

Dunant wrote about his experience and set out a plan to form relief societies around the world. Support for his idea grew, and in 1863 the Geneva Society for Public Welfare founded the ICRC's forerunner, the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded (ICRW).

Red Cross aid
Essential humanitarian aid is distributed to victims of conflict

Diplomats met in Geneva in 1864 to set out the Geneva Convention - formally titled the "Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field". The convention was extensively revised in 1949.

Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 for his work.

Today, the ICRC directs relief activities for the victims of war - whether civilian or military. It monitors the treatment of prisoners of war and works to reunite families. Where needed, it provides water, food and medical help.

It aims to ensure that armed forces and police are aware of the laws concerning armed conflict. The body monitors compliance with international humanitarian law.

Acting as an unbiased intermediary, the organisation maintains a dialogue with warring parties.

ICRC spokeswoman Nada Doumani outside the wrecked offices on 30 October
ICRC has operated in Iraq since 1980 and through three wars

The ICRC operates on the ground in two main ways: Operational delegations help out in conflict zones; regional delegations work in areas not directly affected by fighting, acting as an early warning system for potential disputes.

When conflict looks likely, the organisation reminds all parties of their obligations under international law.

The ICRC deals with the consequences of conflict. Survival relief provides urgent essentials. The organisation provides medicines and equipment and trains medical staff. Recovery programmes provide seeds for crops, tools and other means of production.

The ICRC is the leading body in the Red Cross movement, which includes national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. These bodies operate independently. The ICRC has the role of lead agency for international operations.

FACTS


OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

  • Established: 1863
  • Funding: Voluntarily, by governments party to the Geneva Conventions; national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies; the EU; public and private sources
  • Staff: 1,400 specialised, 11,000 local employees in the field, 800 employed at HQ
  • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
  • Red Cross offices: in 169 locations (2003)
  • 1949 Geneva Conventions signatories: 192 states

LEADERS


OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

President: Jakob Kellenberger

Jakob Kellenberger
President of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger

Jakob Kellenberger, a Swiss former diplomat who served in Madrid, London and Brussels, became president of the ICRC in 2000. In the 1990s he served as the Swiss state secretary for foreign affairs.

The president chairs the assembly that governs the ICRC.

A committee of 15-25 Swiss nationals comprises the ICRC's chief policy-making body. The make up of the committee is intended to maintain the organisation's neutrality.

ISSUES


OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

Weapons

The ICRC tries to ensure that weapons, whether in use or under development, conform to the rules of humanitarian law under which they must not be indiscriminate or inflict more harm than is militarily necessary.

The Ottawa Treaty banning landmines was a significant achievement, although many thousands of people continue to be maimed by them.

The ICRC is a member of a group that was set up in 2001 to lay down rules on the use of cluster bombs and other munitions that continue to maim and kill after fighting has ended.

Emblems

The three Red Cross symbols
Emblems are symbols of protection in conflict zones
Red cross on white background adopted in 1863
Red crescent, used in Muslim countries, became a joint symbol in 1983
Red crystal, approved in 2005, paved the way for Israel's membership

Symbols used by the Red Cross movement have been hotly debated. Various nations have pressed for their own distinctive emblems to be recognised, but all have been refused.

There were decades of wrangling over Israel's use of the red Shield of David, which it said complemented the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent used in by the Red Crescent.

The decision in late 2005 to adopt a third Red Cross emblem - a diamond-shaped red crystal - gave Israel's national emergency service Red Star of David (Magen David Adom) an internationally-recognised symbol to use outside its borders, and removed the only hurdle to its membership of the ICRC.

Confidentiality and prisoners of war

Red Cross representatives visit thousands of prisoners every year, often in countries where external scrutiny is infrequent and unwelcome. They raise cases of mistreatment with the detaining authorities.

Iraqi prisoners of war
Like others, Iraqi POWs are covered by the Geneva Conventions

The ICRC does not discuss its findings, arguing that confidentiality enables it to access places that no other organisation can reach.

But the policy poses a dilemma: Should the Red Cross remain quiet and risk becoming complicit, or should it speak out and risk losing access?

Some regard this approach as being flawed. The humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres - Doctors Without Borders - was formed by former Red Cross staff who felt compelled to speak out about what they had witnessed.

There have been calls for the ICRC to make public their reports should action not be taken to stop mistreatment.

Prisoner abuse by coalition forces in Iraq highlighted this dilemma in 2004. The ICRC sent details of abuse to the US and British governments. The information was leaked, but the ICRC refused to disclose how many approaches it had made to the US and Britain.



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