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Editorial – A century and a half of Humanitarian Action: ICRC celebrates 150th anniversary


This year the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) marks 150 years of humanitarian action across the globe. This is a time not just to celebrate but to relearn and re-invent ourselves as an organisation as we face new and emerging challenges in a wide and diverse humanitarian landscape especially in relation to our ability to access populations with humanitarian needs. The constantly changing means and methods of warfare warrant that the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) initiative too is constantly strengthened.

Egyptian prisoners-of-war return home under the care of the ICRC 

Yemen, October 1965
Egyptian prisoners-of-war return home under the care of the ICRC
© ICRC / J. de Palezieux

The well preserved and documented archives of the ICRC are integral to this constant process of learning - of looking ahead but also turning back to the decades of experience and untiring service provided by the staff and volunteers of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Archived reports, photographs, messages, recordings, telegrams and personal notes narrate both individual and collective stories. For example, they give interesting details of a “horseback delegate”, Nicolas Burckhardt who had to ride ten days to reach the area he wanted to survey in Jammu and Kashmir in 1949. His note read, “…an hour after the rain started, rocks and avalanches of sand began to fall, carrying off the most exposed parts of the road” telling of the conditions under which the staff worked. Similarly, archived photographs of a surgeon in a field hospital during the Spanish-American war in Cuba in 1898 or of a lone ICRC vehicle in a desert-type landscape in Palestine in 1950 are just a few examples of snapshots that immortalised the work performed over the years.

In the Indian subcontinent, the ICRC has offered its assistance in various situations starting as far back as 1917. Later in 1947 as well, ICRC delegates were sent to the region to assess the needs of those suffering the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan. Their mission, initially, was to work with the national societies to assess refugee needs in both countries and gather information for a fund-raising appeal. During the time the ICRC worked as a neutral intermediary to help address specific humanitarian problems such as the repatriation of all prisoners of war, and displaced women and children. By August 1949, ten visits had been made to the principal detention places in India, and six to the main camps in Pakistan in support of the prisoners of war.

This edition of the newsletter – with a combination of the past and the present - is a salute to all the people who together made these 150 years a journey worth undertaking. It is because of their indefatigable spirit that the Red Cross symbol is the second most recognised symbol across the globe. And as we continue onward, working in a diversity of situations, facing old and new challenges alike, these anniversaries, more than anything else, are a reminder of why we must go on.

Mary Werntz  
Head of the Regional Delegation
New Delhi