Our history

Since our creation in 1863, we have worked to help, protect and provide humanitarian assistance to people affected by armed conflict and other violence.

The history that informs our work

Our story is the story of humanitarian action, the Geneva Conventions and the birth of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Since 1863, the ICRC’s sole objective has been to ensure protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and strife. We do so through direct action around the world, as well as by encouraging the development of international humanitarian law and promoting respect for it by governments and all weapon bearers.

The beginning of the Red Cross

In February 1863, what was to become the International Committee of the Red Cross met for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. Among its five founding members was a local man named Henry Dunant who, the year before, had published a book entitled A Memory of Solferino, which called for better care for wounded soldiers in wartime.

By the end of the year, the committee had brought together government representatives to agree on Dunant’s proposal for national relief societies to help military medical services and, in August 1864, it persuaded governments to adopt the first and original Geneva Convention. This treaty obliged armies to care for wounded soldiers, whatever side they were on, and introduced a unified emblem for the medical services: a red cross on a white background.

The ICRC’s primary role was one of coordination, but it gradually became more involved in field operations as the need for a neutral intermediary between belligerents became apparent. 

Over the next 50 years, the ICRC expanded its work, National Societies were established – the first in the German state of Württemberg in November 1863 – and the Geneva Convention was adapted to include warfare at sea.

The First World War (1914–1918)

With the outbreak of the First World War, and based on our experience in other conflicts, the ICRC opened the International Prisoners of War Agency in Geneva to restore contact between captured soldiers and their families.

During this period, the ICRC continued to innovate, increasing the number of visits to prisoners of war and intervening over the use of weapons that caused extreme suffering; in 1918, we publicly appealed for belligerents to renounce the use of mustard gas. That same year, we visited political prisoners for the first time, in Hungary.

The First World War saw National Societies mobilize an unprecedented number of volunteers, who successfully operated ambulance services on the battlefield and cared for the wounded in hospitals. In many countries, this was our Movement’s finest hour.

The interwar period (1918–1939)

After the First World War and with the arrival of peace and hope for a new world order, many National Societies felt that the role of the Red Cross had to change. In 1919, they founded the League of Red Cross Societies, intended as the future coordinating and support body for the Movement. But conflicts and civil wars during the 1920s and 1930s highlighted the need for a neutral intermediary and the ICRC remained active, increasingly outside Europe (in Ethiopia, South America and the Far East) but also notably in Spain.

The ICRC persuaded governments to adopt a new Geneva Convention in 1929 to provide greater protection for prisoners of war. But despite the obvious broader threats posed by modern warfare, states failed to agree on new laws to protect civilians in time to prevent the atrocities of the Second World War, despite the ICRC’s best efforts.

Second World War (1939–1945)

The Second World War saw a huge expansion of activities as the organization tried to work to assist and protect victims on all sides. The ICRC and the League worked together to ship relief supplies across the globe, reaching both prisoners of war and civilians. ICRC delegates visited prisoners of war around the world and helped exchange millions of Red Cross messages between family members. For years after the war, the ICRC dealt with requests for news about missing loved ones.

However, this period also saw the ICRC’s greatest failure: a lack of action on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and other persecuted groups. Lacking a specific legal basis, bound by its traditional procedures and hindered in its ability to act by its ties with the Swiss establishment, the ICRC was unable to take decisive action or to speak out. It was left to individual ICRC delegates to do what they could to save groups of Jews.


1945 onwards

Since 1945, the ICRC has continued to urge governments to strengthen international humanitarian law – and to respect it. We have sought to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the conflicts that have marked the second half of the 20th century, starting with Israel and Palestine in 1948.

In 1949, at the ICRC’s initiative, states agreed to revise the three Geneva Conventions (covering the wounded and sick on the battlefield, victims of war at sea and prisoners of war) and to add a fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians living under enemy control. The four Geneva Conventions provide the ICRC’s main mandate in situations of armed conflict.

In 1977, two Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions were adopted, the first applicable to international armed conflicts and the second to non-international armed conflicts – a major breakthrough. The Additional Protocols also laid down rules on the conduct of hostilities.

A word from our president

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger

There is an urgency to rediscover the humanity in one another.

Mirjana Poljaric President, ICRC