The birth of the Red Cross


The final major development that led to the emergence of a modern law of armed conflict is also related to a specific armed conflict, the battle of Solferino in June 1859, where France was helping Sardinian forces to push back Austria from the North of Italy. Henri Dunant, a young Swiss businessman who was seeking a meeting with Napoleon III regarding business opportunities in French colonies, caught up with the French royal entourage in the immediate aftermath of the battle. Dunant was shocked and dismayed by the thousands of wounded soldiers who were left dying on the ground without water, food or medical care. The number of the medical military units on both sides was insignificant and those units that existed were quickly overwhelmed. Dunant therefore organized a group of volunteers to provide assistance to these soldiers. In 1862, back in Geneva, Dunant published a memory of Solferino in which he described what he saw and made some suggestions, including the establishment, in time of peace, of relief societies in each country which would provide care for the wounded in time of war. This book had a great impact all over Europe. In Switzerland, it was received positively by the Geneva Society for Public Welfare. The Society’s President, jurist Gustave Moynier, decided to create, in 1863, a Commission in order to formulate plans for the implementation of Dunant’s ideas. This commission, composed of Gustave Moynier, Henri Dunant and three other important Swiss men, was named the “International Committee for the relief of wounded military”. It is the ancestor of the present-day “International Committee of the Red Cross”, which is normally referred to as the ICRC. Some months after its creation, the International Committee managed to gather together a significant number of representatives of European governments. Collectively, those present at the meeting resolved to implement a number of proposals to ameliorate the condition of those wounded in conflicts. These proposals included Dunant’s proposition regarding the creation of national committees for the relief of wounded military; the recognition of the central role of the Geneva Committee and the adoption of the red-cross sign as the distinctive sign of the medical personnel. Under the pressure of the International Committee, the Swiss Government convened an international conference to adopt a binding treaty in place of the political commitments expressed in 1863. The Conference was a success and led to the adoption of the 1864 Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Contrary to the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions on the laws and customs of war, the 1864 Convention was only focused on the protection of persons and not on the conduct of hostilities. Because of this emphasis, the 1864 Convention is widely regarded as the first humanitarian convention on the laws of armed conflict. The 1864 Convention has been subject to a number of developments. For instance, in 1899, its provisions were adapted to regulate armed conflict at sea according to similar principles. On land, the Convention was amended in 1906, 1929 and finally in 1949.

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