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Joint Working Group on the Emblems: statement by François Bugnion

30-06-2000 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 838

Geneva, 13-14 April 2000

 Address by François Bugnion, Director of International Law and Communication, International Committee of the Red Cross  

Madam President, distinguished delegates,

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to you, Madam President, for having convened this very important meeting, and to the Government experts and National Society specialists who have agreed to join us in order to help solve a most sensitive issue which has been a source of major concern to our Movement for many years.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has the highest respect for the protective value and symbolic significance of the emblems used by our Movement; however, we also recognize that the present situation with regard to those emblems has serious drawbacks which we have to address.

 (a) It may legitimately be asked whether the current situation is truly consistent with the principle of equality which should govern international relations, since some States and National Societies can easily identify with either the red cross or the red crescent, while other States and National Societies cannot.

 (b) The coexistence of two emblems is at odds with the principle of unity of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and bears within it the seeds of division.

 (c) The present situation undermines the universality of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, since the majority of the Israeli population feels - for compelling reasons - that it cannot identify with either the red cross or the red crescent, whereas the Movement's Statutes require each and every National Society to use one or other of those emblems. Consequently the Magen David Adom in Israel, which has been in existence for 70 years and provides remarkable humanitarian services, could not become a full member of our Movement. The Kazakh Red Crescent and Red Cross Society was in the same position. Since the population of Kazakhstan is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, the country's parliament decided to use the double emblem of the red cross and red crescent, whereas the Geneva Conventions and the Statutes of our Movement provide for use of either the red cross or the red crescent.

The same applies to Eritrea, although this country is not yet party to the Geneva Conventions. Whatever the reasons, the National Societies of Israel, Kazakhstan and Eritrea have for many years been unable to join our Movement as full members. This situation has lasted too long and must be remedied.

 (d) The coexistence of two emblems at the international level is an open invitation to further splits. The Israeli request is not unique. Over the years, the ICRC has received others, and the risk of proliferation cannot be ignored.

 (e) The coexistence of two emblems at the international level causes many problems in countries where different religious communities live together. However great the efforts made by the National Society to serve the whole population, it will be identified with the community suggested by its emblem. This will impede its ability to develop its operational capacity. In the event of civil war, there is the risk that the Society might split up and its relief work be paralysed.

 (f) Finally and most seriously, the coexistence of two emblems - or even three, if the Israeli reservation is taken into account - weakens their protective force, in particular when two opposing parties use different emblems. Instead of appearing as a symbol of neutrality, the distinctive sign may be identified with one or other of the parties to the conflict.

For, over and above the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, the protective value of the emblem derives from the fact that the same sign is used by friend and foe. Once the unity of the emblem is breached, its protective value - and hence the safety of the wounded and medical personnel - is threatened.

Whatever the historical reasons that led to the present state of affairs, the ICRC has no doubt that it is in contradiction to the Fundamental Red Cross and Red Crescent Principles, in particular the principle of universality. The exclusion of three National Societies from full membership of our Movement is perceived as unfair and discriminatory. The ICRC is fully committed to finding a solution to this situation as a matter of the utmost urgency.

Well aware that many States and National Societies now using either the red cross or the red crescent are entirely satisfied with the present situation and see no reason to adopt a new emblem, the ICRC has recommended that renewed efforts be made to work out a comprehensive solution to this question. It has suggested that any such solution should meet four requirements, whose pertinence is confirmed by experience within the Movement:

  • the solution must be very widely acceptable;

  • the States and National Societies that use one of the emblems recognized in the Geneva Conventions should not be forced to renounce or change their emblem;

  • any new sign must be graphically simple enough to ensure visibility at a distance and must be devoid of any religious, political or ethnic connotation;

  • any proliferation of emblems must be avoided.

The consultations which have taken place in recent years under the efficient chairmanship of Mrs Christina Magnuson, President of the Swedish Red Cross and member of the Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, led to a proposal being put forward in October 1998 which in our opinion fully meets the criteria I have just outlined.

The essential elements of this proposal are as follows:

 (a) The red cross and the red crescent would be maintained as protective emblems of the medical services and as distinctive signs for the National Societies of those countries which already use them and are satisfied with this situation. No pressure would be exerted to compel a State or a National Society which is satisfied with the use of the red cross or the red crescent to abandon it.

 (b) In addition to the red cross and the red crescent, a third protective emblem, free of any national or religious connotation, would be adopted by the international community and put at the disposal of States and National Societies that cannot accept either the red cross or the red crescent.

 (c) Should they so wish, the National Societies of countries adopting t he third protective emblem for the protection of their medical services would be authorized to incorporate within it, for indicative purposes, one of the distinctive signs already in use today, namely the red cross, the red crescent, the red shield of David or the double emblem of the red cross and red crescent.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has authorized me to declare today that it fully supports this proposal. The ICRC considers that the adoption of a third protective emblem free of any national or religious connotation, and its recognition alongside the red cross and the red crescent, is the most realistic means of resolving the issue of the emblem and will accommodate those countries and National Societies which, for reasons we acknowledge and respect, cannot adopt either the red cross or the red crescent.

The possibility of incorporating within the third universal emblem any of the indicative signs already in use - namely the red cross, the red crescent, the red shield of David or the double emblem of the red cross and red crescent - opens the way to recognition of the Magen David Adom, the Kazakh Red Crescent and Red Cross Society and, whenever Eritrea accedes to the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society of Eritrea. It also offers a fair alternative to any National Society that might in the future encounter difficulties in using the existing emblems.

Last but not least, this proposal will not lead to a proliferation of protective emblems which would inevitably jeopardize the protection of war victims.

On the contrary, the adoption of a third universal emblem, free of any national or religious connotation, is the best safeguard against the proliferation of individual emblems identified with a particular country or religious group.

For all these reasons, the ICRC would like to convey its gratitude to our Chai r, Mrs Magnuson, for having submitted this proposal in October 1998.

In our view, this proposal offers the best prospect of a comprehensive and lasting solution to the question of the emblem, while allowing the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to achieve the universality it has been seeking for so many years, since it will allow for full membership of Magen David Adom, the Kazakh Red Crescent and Red Cross Society and, hopefully, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society of Eritrea.

Should this proposal receive sufficient support, the ICRC is ready, in accordance with the mandate it has received from the International community, to initiate consultations forthwith on a draft Protocol III additional to the Geneva Conventions which would grant international recognition to a third universal emblem and to the indicative signs currently used.

In parallel, the ICRC is also ready to embark, in cooperation with the International Federation, on a draft revision of the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, with a view to amending the conditions for the recognition of National Societies, so as to allow our Movement to achieve the universality which is consonant with its Fundamental Principles.

Lastly, to help National Societies wishing to adopt the third universal emblem to effect the necessary changes to their equipment, and to make the third emblem as widely known as possible, the ICRC has decided to set up a special fund and invites the International Federation, National Societies and States to contribute generously to it, so that the financial burden of change will be shared as widely and as equitably as possible.

At the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, it is high time to redress a situation which has lasted too long and which has prevented our Movement from achieving its ideal of universality. The solution is in our hands.

May justice and fairness prevail !




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