The international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization. Its mandate to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict has been conferred on it by states through the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005, worthy successor to the First Geneva Convention of 1864.
The ICRC’s mandate and legal status set it apart both from intergovernmental agencies, such as United Nations organizations and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In most of the countries in which it works, the ICRC has concluded headquarters agreements, which are subject to international law, the ICRC enjoys the privileges and immunities usually only granted to intergovernmental organizations, such as immunity from legal process, which protects it from administrative and judicial proceedings and inviolability of its premises, archives and other documents
Such privileges and immunities are indispensable for the ICRC because they guarantee two conditions essential to its action, namely neutrality and independence. The organization has concluded such an agreement with Switzerland, thus guaranteeing its independence and freedom of action from the Swiss government.
The ICRC owes its origins to the vision and determination of one man: Henry Dunant. The date: 24 June 1859. The place: Solferino, a town in northern Italy. The Austrian and French armies were locked in bitter battle and after 16 hours of fighting, the ground was strewn with 400,000 dead and wounded. The same evening, Dunant, a Swiss citizen, passed through the area on business. He was horrified by the sight of thousands of soldiers from both armies left to suffer for want of medical care. He appealed to the local people to help him tend the wounded, insisting that soldiers on both sides should be treated equally.
On his return to Switzerland, Dunant published A Memory of Solferino, in which he made two solemn appeals:
• For relief societies to be formed in peace time, with nurses who would be ready to care for the wounded in wartime
• For those volunteers, who would be called upon to assist the army medical services, to be recognized and protected through an international agreement.
In 1863, a charitable association known as the Geneva Society for Public Welfare set up a five-member commission to consider how Dunant’s ideas could be made a reality. This commission made up of Gustave Moynier, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Louis Appia, Theodore Maunoir and Dunant himself – founded the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
The five founders then set about ensuring that the ideas put forward in Dunant’s book would become a reality. In response to their invitation, 16 States and four philanthropic institutions sent representatives to the International Conference which opened in Geneva on 26 October 1863. It was at that conference that the distinctive emblem – a red cross on a white background, the reverse of the Swiss national flag – was adopted and the Red Cross came into being.
To formalize protection of medical services on the battlefield and to gain international recognition of the Red Cross and its ideals, the Swiss government convened a Diplomatic Conference in Geneva in 1864. Representatives of 12 governments took part and adopted a treaty entitled the “Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”, which became the first treaty of humanitarian law.