Goodbye Red Cross - Hello Red Diamond?

As attacks against workers increase, the aid group considers a new emblem.

A major disaster has struck in a distant corner of the world. Aid workers rush to the scene under the banner of the Red Diamond.

The Red Diamond?

This is a possible scenario that Red Cross delegates were considering at a meeting this week in Seville, Spain.

A recent upsurge in violence against its workers has pushed the global movement into reexamining its century-old symbol.

Since World War II, 21 Red Cross aid workers have been intentionally killed in the line of duty. Of those, 16 have died since 1990. They include six Red Cross workers brutally slain in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya in 1996, and three more killed in the Central African nation of Burundi.

"Today's reality is much more chaotic. It's much less clear what the rules of war are," says Doris Pfister, an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman.

At the council, which wrapped up yesterday, international delegates adopted a resolution to continue studying the issue and seek ways of improving the situation in countries that have experienced problems.

This includes the possibility of using a diamond to replace or supplement the traditional cross. The diamond would be a solid red square on a white field.

No one at the Red Cross expects a new symbol alone to ward off all dangers. But the Chechnya killings in particular prompted a wholesale review of security. Within months, the ICRC decided for the first time to use armed guards to protect its field workers in certain situations.

Two months before the slayings, Muslim guerrilla fighters visited the Novi Atagi hospital to demand that crosses on the buildings be removed. They were, but suspicions of a possible link to the attack remain.

Last month, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan also insisted that crosses be removed. It was not for religious reasons, the Muslims said, but due to local superstitions that the cross was a sign of evil.

In areas that are multireligious, such as the former Yugoslavia, the cross and the crescent - used by many Muslim countries - are viewed as religiously provocative, field workers say.

"It's sensitive and irrational at the same time," says the ICRC's Pierre Valloton, who helped write the study of symbol alternatives. "There are so many problems that we are ready to have a new solution."

The Red Cross sign has faced troubles almost since the beginning. Jean Henri Dunant, a Swiss, spearheaded the founding of the Red Cross after the 1859 Battle of Solferino, in Italy. Thousands of wounded soldiers were left to die because there was no uniform symbol to protect those who were trying to help the injured.

Galvanized by Dunant's account of the tragedy, representatives of 16 countries gathered in Geneva to approve the first Geneva Convention in 1864. A red cross on a white background - the reverse of the Swiss flag - was adopted as the official sign of the humanitarian aid services.

But disputes quickly sprouted. Muslims said the cross stood for the Christian Crusades, and opted instead for the red crescent. Israel has refused to use either symbol, selecting instead a red Star of David.

Even today, the Red Cross movement remains split. The ICRC has called for a single, culturally neutral symbol. But its sister organization, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, wants to keep its existing emblem with cross and crescent side by side.

Any action won't come quickly. All 188 member countries of the Geneva Convention must ratify any change.

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