Ethics, Revised Edition
International Red Cross
Identification: Charitable organization created in Switzerland to limit the horrors of war by providing relief to its victims
Date: Created in 1863
Type of Ethics: International Relations
Significance: Through the Geneva Conventions with which it is closely associated, the Red Cross helped develop the concept of combatants adhering to ethical standards of conduct during military conflicts.
In 1859, the sight of wounded soldiers suffering on the battlefield after the Battle of Solferino in Italy so horrified a young Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant that he wrote an impassioned book, A Memory of Solferino (1862), in which he called for the creation of an army of volunteers to treat the wounded and for the establishment of international conventions under which such an army would function. In 1863, a committee of five prosperous citizens of Geneva, Switzerland, took up Dunant's ideas and arranged an international conference that led to the first Geneva Convention on the treatment of wounded soldiers. The committee, which became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross because of the badge it adopted for its volunteers, initiated further conferences which produced additional conventions.
The Geneva Conventions established rules for the humane conduct of war in an attempt to alleviate the horrors of warfare. These rules included provisions facilitating the treatment of wounded soldiers by recognizing both the wounded and the medical personnel treating them as neutral. Later rules called for the humane treatment of prisoners of war, civilians affected by war, victims of civil wars, and political prisoners.
Although the central purpose of the Red Cross was to introduce ethical standards into military conflicts, some observers criticized its efforts on ethical grounds, arguing that by making the conduct of war more humane, the Red Cross was also making war more acceptable and thus encouraging, rather than, discouraging war. Some critics. including the noted English nurse Florence Nightingale, also said that providing a volunteer army of nurses and other medical personnel also made war easier for combatant by relieving their military authorities of medical responsibilities and freeing up their resources.
However, in the twentieth century, especially after World War I, there was general acceptance of the importance of the relief work carried out by the Red Cross under the Geneva Conventions. Ethical debates did arise, however, over how best to enforce the conventions, and the Red Cross, which generally preferred private communication to public denunciations, was criticized for not speaking out publicly against the treatment of the Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Debates also arose over the political use of relief, especially during the Nigerian civil war during the late 1960's, and over the treatment of combatants in guerrilla wars. Historically, the approach of the Red Cross has generally been one of neutrality. The Red Cross does not judge the merits of conflicts; instead, it encourages humane treatment of all those affected by such conflicts.
Haug, Hans, et al. Humanity for All: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Berne, Switzerland: Henry Dunant Institute, Paul Haupt, 1993.
Hutchinson, John F. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.
Moorehead, Caroline. Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross. London: HarperCollins, 1998.
Geneva Conventions; Human rights; Limited war; Military ethics; Nobel Peace Prize; War; World Health Organization.
SALEM PRESS, a division of EBSCO Publishing. · 131 North El Molino Avenue · Pasadena · CA 91101
© Salem Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.