160 years on the side of humanity: A commitment that has never waned
On 24 June 1859, the future founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Henry Dunant, got the shock of his life. He arrived in Solferino, a town in northern Italy, to discover the French and Austrian armies had just fought one of the bloodiest battles on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo. In the ditches, fields and valleys around the town, 40,000 soldiers lay wounded or dead, abandoned to their fate.
Dunant was revolted by what he saw. What he was about to do would change the course of humanitarianism profoundly. Still today, 160 years on, his ideas remain as powerful as ever, giving millions of men and women around the world the means to prevent and alleviate human suffering.
Dunant was a Genevan entrepreneur and had gone to Solferino purely for business reasons. But faced with the horrors of the battlefield, he began organizing first aid for the wounded with the help of the local population. He dressed wounds, gave water to thirsty soldiers, paid for sheets and food out of his own pocket and recorded the last words of the dying so they could be sent to their families. He also asked the victorious French forces to release Austrian surgeons they had captured so they could treat wounded soldiers from both sides. This humanitarian spirit was out of the ordinary: at the time armies had more veterinarians in their ranks than surgeons. A horse was worth more than a soldier. And an army's medics were as much of a military target as any other.
When Dunant got back to his hometown of Geneva, he began writing A Memory of Solferino, which was published in 1862. In his book, he set out two major ideas:
- Relief committees should be formed to train volunteers in times of peace so that they could treat the wounded in times of war. These committees swiftly became the first National Red Cross Societies.
- An international agreement should recognize these committees and grant them protection on the battlefield. The original Geneva Convention, adopted in 1864, made these ideas reality and constitutes the foundation of modern-day international humanitarian law.
Today, 160 years on, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement brings together 192 National Societies, all united by the desire to alleviate human suffering and provide assistance to the most vulnerable people, wherever they are. Our neutrality enables us to cross front lines. Moreover, a person's political opinions, class, nationality, gender, beliefs and so on never determine who receives aid. Only one thing matters: who is in need? Our humanitarian action is based on the Movement's well-known Fundamental Principles.
We defend the ideals of international humanitarian law and continue the work began at Solferino so that:
- individuals separated by armed conflict can get back in touch with their loved ones
- civilians are not treated as targets in armed conflicts
- prisoners of war and other detainees are treated humanely
- people who have lost a limb can receive an orthosis or prosthesis
- states stop developing weapons that cannot uphold the distinction between civilians and soldiers
- people who suffer the effects of armed violence can live with dignity
- and much, much more.
When Henry Dunant and four other Genevan citizens came together on 17 February 1863 to create the ICRC, did they think one day that this organization would be working in places as disparate as Yemen and Somalia, Mali and Colombia, Ukraine and Syria? Did they know that millions of men and women, working within a powerful movement, would still be putting their principles into practice 160 years later? There is no lack of modern-day Solferinos or frightening challenges for us to face in our time. And though human pain is the same as it ever was, our humanitarian operations have grown ever more complex under planet-wide pressures, such as climate change, hate speech, food insecurity, the use of mercenaries, and the development of increasingly deadly technologies.
In November 2022, ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric said, "We will do our work to promote IHL, to assist states with their obligations to prevent violations, and to protect civilian and military victims of armed conflicts when they will arise." But President Spoljaric appealed to states to maintain peace, because, as she said, if "war broke out along the fault lines we are seeing today, the ramifications and humanitarian consequences would be beyond overwhelming. And there is nothing that IHL [international humanitarian law], the ICRC or the whole of the world's humanitarian movement could do to make it bearable.