Why the red cross should live

On April 26, 2001, two vehicles flying the red and white flag of the International Committee of the Red Cross were ambushed in eastern Congo, some 250 kilometers northwest of here. Six Red Cross workers were murdered.

The ICRC teams were performing their normal humanitarian role in accord with the Geneva Conventions. No one knows who committed the murders, or whether the assailants knew what the ICRC's emblem stands for. It's possible the aid workers were massacred precisely because they represented the international Red Cross.

The attack raises two key concerns: First is the increase of deliberate assaults against aid workers - as well as journalists - in war zones around the world. Second is whether it is appropriate to contemplate, as is now happening, the creation of yet another logo for the international Red Cross movement.

For humanitarians, it is hard enough to ensure respect for the two existing universal symbols - the red cross and the lesser-known red crescent. A third icon would be a costly distraction that could lead to a serious weakening of the world's ability to protect war victims.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, most fighters involved in ideological or liberation wars tended to respect international aid organizations and the media. It was a matter of prestige if not good public relations to have them operating on your side.

But the face of conflict changed when the cold war ended, resulting in a less universal rationale for conflict. Warlords, armed factions, and even governments considered it more tactical to kill or kidnap aid workers and journalists.

One need only recall the cold-blooded shooting of ICRC workers in Chechnya by unidentified gunmen in 1996, the lynching of three United Nations employees in West Timor by pro-Indonesian militia in 2000, and the killing of dozens of journalists over the past decade in the Balkans, Algeria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

What this amounts to is a failure to convey the need for respect for the Geneva Conventions and its additional protocols. It has taken 138 years for the red cross to be acknowledged as the principal mark of protection for war-affected civilians, prisoners, and other noncombatants. Yet even if it remains one of the world's most recognizable emblems, the Red Cross still faces an uphill struggle, possibly even a losing one, to put across the humanitarian principles it symbolizes.

Now the international Red Cross movement, which consists of the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is indulging itself in efforts to find a new emblem. This is partly the result of arm-twisting by the American Red Cross, which is seeking to have the red star of David deployed alongside the red cross and red crescent, or, failing this, in conjunction with an entirely new compromise logo.

While the creation of a third logo - a red diamond and a double chevron have been among those considered - may appear to resolve the problem brought about by political or religious groups, it is doubtful that this will resolve the deeper issues.

It is a debate few really want. A diplomatic conference scheduled for late 2000 in Geneva to decide the question was postponed because of disagreements among the national Red Cross societies. The meeting was reset for later this year, but many observers expect it to be retabled.

The Israelis have indicated a willingness to drop their demands if the red cross were recognized as the only universal symbol. Many Muslim countries, however, are loath to relinquish the red crescent, which first emerged in the late-19th century in a humanitarian context.

For the movement, the political crux is one of membership. So far, neither Israel nor Palestine has been allowed to join. Many humanitarians have nothing against their becoming members or using their own emblems. Other national societies such as Eritrea, which has opted for the red cross and red crescent, and Kazakhstan - the red cross - are also waiting to accede.

What many object to is the creation of yet another logo that would dilute the impact of the red cross and confuse belligerents. A new logo would also open the door to other entities' insisting on the adoption of their own symbols. In 1977, the Indian Red Cross proposed the reverse swastika (a holy symbol) as a possible national emblem.

Some advocates for a new symbol claim humanitarian operatives in recent conflicts have been attacked because of the alleged association of the red cross with Christianity. There is little evidence for this.

The reality is far more insidious. Aid workers and journalists, regardless of affiliation, have become targets because they represent the international community, not because of religion. The red cross is simply a reverse of the Swiss flag. However, artificially imposing religious connotations will only compromise this humanitarian neutrality.

As a journalist who has covered wars and humanitarian crises for more than 20 years, I have witnessed numerous examples of the red cross saving lives, be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu.

While working on a TV documentary in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, I came across a camp of refugees who had fled fighting in Liberia. For weeks, these hapless people found themselves harassed, some killed, by bands of militia. The survivors' torment ended only when two Danish Red Cross workers armed solely with red cross flags guided them along an open, hostile road to a more secure location.

Tragically, the red cross does not offer an automatic shield of protection. But the realities on the ground strongly suggest that it is the only universal symbol effectively representing the interests of victims worldwide.

Edward Girardet is a former foreign correspondent for the Monitor. He is a co-founder of Media Action International in Geneva and editor of CROSSLINES Global Report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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