These are symbols of assistance in times of conflict or disaster, and have worldwide recognition in national and international law under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war).
The Third Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 2005, established the Red Crystal as an emblem that can be used by states that have difficulty with either the Red Cross or the Red Crescent because of perceptions that they may have religious significance. Although there are no religious associations with either of these emblems, the Red Crystal offers an alternative for states that are unable to use the other emblems.
In 2006, the Red Crystal became an approved emblem that can be used by a National Society as a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Under the Third Protocol, a National Society that uses the Red Crystal can use its own historic emblem, in certain circumstances, for its work in its own country, and can use that emblem within the frame of the Red Crystal for work in other countries.
The IFRC works with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and all National Societies to protect the emblems against misuse and abuse, as it is essential that they stand unchallenged as symbols of neutral and independent assistance at all times, and as guarantees of protection in times of conflict or emergency. Governments have accepted an obligation to prevent misuse and abuse, and in many countries the misuse or abuse of the emblems can lead to prosecution.
Use of the emblems
As specified by the Geneva Conventions, the four recognized emblems are to be used only to denote the following:
- facilities for the care of injured and sick armed forces members;
- armed forces medical personnel and equipment;
- military chaplains;
- International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the 185 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.
In order to ensure universal respect for the emblems, the Geneva Conventions obliged their signatories to forbid any other use of the names and emblems in wartime and peacetime.
International protection of images
The protected status of these images was established in the First Geneva Convention which states:
- Art. 44. With the exception of the cases mentioned in the following paragraphs of the present Article, the emblem of the red cross on a white ground and the words "Red Cross" or " Geneva Cross " may not be employed, either in time of peace or in time of war, except to indicate or to protect the medical units and establishments, the personnel and material protected by the present Convention and other Conventions dealing with similar matters. The same shall apply to the emblems mentioned in Article 38, second paragraph, in respect of the countries which use them. The National Red Cross Societies and other societies designated in Article 26 shall have the right to use the distinctive emblem conferring the protection of the Convention only within the framework of the present paragraph.
- Art. 44. (cont.) Furthermore, National Red Cross (Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun) Societies may, in time of peace, in accordance with their rational legislation, make use of the name and emblem of the Red Cross for their other activities which are in conformity with the principles laid down by the International Red Cross Conferences. When those activities are carried out in time of war, the conditions for the use of the emblem shall be such that it cannot be considered as conferring the protection of the Convention; the emblem shall be comparatively small in size and may not be placed on armlets or on the roofs of buildings.
The use of the emblems: clearly defined in law
The use and misuse of the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems is clearly defined in law. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain several articles on the emblems. Among other things, they specify the use, size, purpose and placing of the emblems, the persons and property they protect, who can use them, what respect for the emblems entails and the penalties for misuse. Moreover, they also require each State party to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols to enact legislation defining the use and preventing the misuse of the emblems on the national level.
The protective and the indicative use of the emblems
There are two main uses of the emblems: the "protective use" and the "indicative use".
Firstly, the emblems are a visible sign in armed conflict of the protection given to the medical services, equipment and buildings of the armed forces under international law. That protection extends to certain humanitarian organizations working alongside the military to relieve the suffering of the wounded, prisoners and civilians caught up in the conflict. This first use is usually referred to as “protective use”.
Secondly, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world are allowed to use the emblems to identify themselves as part of a global network known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. This use is called the “indicative use”.
The rules for both uses are very precise
In armed conflicts, the protective emblem must be in red on a white background with no additions. It must be clearly displayed in a large format on protected buildings, such as hospitals, and vehicles. Emblems on armbands and vests for protected personnel must also be clear and stand alone. A deliberate attack on a person, equipment or a building carrying a protective emblem is a war crime under international law.
The indicative use by National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is different. National Societies may in peacetime make use of the name and emblem of the red cross for their activities other than assistance to the medical service of the armed forces. The indicative use is thus primarily a peacetime use. The emblems are in effect used as a logo. In wartime, National Societies may continue to use the indicative emblem, but only under the condition that it cannot be considered as implying the protection of the Convention, i.e. that it cannot be confused with the protective emblem. To this end, the indicative emblem must be comparatively small in size and may not be placed on armlets or on the roofs of buildings.
The history of the emblems
The first emblem came into being in 1864. The governments attending the diplomatic conference, which adopted the First Geneva Convention in 1864, decided that a clear neutral sign was needed on the battlefield to protect medical staff and facilities. They opted for a red cross on a white background, the exact reverse of the flag of neutral Switzerland. The resulting symbol had the advantage of being easily produced and recognizable at a distance because of its contrasting colours.
In the years that followed, a number of national relief organizations started to be called “red cross societies” and the indicative use of the emblem became established.
The original intent of the 1864 conference was to create a universal, neutral and distinctive sign of protection, used and recognized by everyone. But just over a decade later, during the Russo-Turkish war, the Ottoman empire adopted the red crescent as its protective sign, while still recognizing and respecting the red cross. Persia, too, adopted its own sign and in 1929 governments formally recognized all three.
This situation lasted until 1980 when Iran dropped the old Persian sign – the red lion and sun - in favour of the red crescent. Since the 1990s there had been concern about respect for the neutrality of the red cross or red crescent in certain difficult conflicts. In 1992, the then president of the ICRC called publicly for the creation of an additional emblem devoid of any national, political or religious connotation. In 2005 governments adopted an additional protective sign, the red crystal.