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The Red Cross has a 150 year history of providing impartial humanitarian aid. Toby Bradbury, CC BY-NC-SA

Explainer: why protecting the Red Cross emblem matters

The Red Cross is a symbol we all know well – we see it everywhere, on pharmacy signs, children’s dress-ups, toy sets, Halloween costumes, even ads for mobile phone repairers. The Red Cross has become a generic sign of medical aid, a universal logo for health and help.

Logo of a mobile phone repair company. Cellular Doctor

Except that it isn’t, and shouldn’t be – at least, not how you might think. The Red Cross (and its associated emblems, the Red Crescent and the Red Crystal) are internationally protected symbols.

When Australian drama Doctor Blake used a bloody red cross in its advertising for the show, there was no intention of misuse. Producer George Adams told the Australian Red Cross that, until they contacted him, he – like most Australians – had no idea it was protected:

Everyone recognised it was an honest mistake and certainly wasn’t in the spirit of the show … We were genuinely horrified that we had in any way put the Red Cross in such a situation where the emblem could be denigrated or belittled.

The Australian Red Cross recently released an app to monitor misuse of their emblem. If you see the cross somewhere it shouldn’t be, send a report and the Red Cross will act. But why should we care? Why is this symbol protected, and does a naughty nurse outfit really matter to the aid workers who venture into war zones?

Red Cross Australia worked with the Doctor Blake producers to adjust their advertising materials. December Media

Red Cross: 150 years of history

The Red Cross came into being as a result of the advocacy work of a Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant. Dunant was on a business trip to northern Italy in June 1859, when he came across the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino – one of the bloodiest battles fought during the Italian Wars of Independence.

Nearly 40,000 men were dead or wounded, left behind as their respective armies retreated. For three days the villagers of nearby Castiglione, Dunant among them, brought the injured food, water, and shelter, and buried the dead.

On Dunant’s return to his home in Geneva, he was moved to write a short polemic, A Memory of Solferino, calling on nations to establish some kind of organisation that could assist the wounded and sick in the armed forces in times of armed conflict.

The French, Sardinian, and Austrian medical personnel attending the armed forces at Solferino had been woefully understaffed. Wouldn’t it be better, Dunant reasoned, for there to be an organisation that could attend to the wounded without favour or prejudice, so that no one was left behind to suffer and die needlessly?

Dunant’s idea eventually gave birth to the International Committee for Relief to Wounded Soldiers – which eventually became the International Committee of the Red Cross. In order to maintain its status as neutral, non-partisan, humanitarian care-givers, the Committee realised it would need some kind of distinctive symbol, worn on one’s person.

A white cloth with a red cross was suggested – likely a tribute to the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on a red background. The Red Cross was born. It was followed in later years by the Red Crescent, and then in 2005, the Red Crystal.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva. M@

Protecting the Cross

In the decades following the adoption of the Red Cross, the emblem was widely used by armed forces and the Committee as a sign of medical aid and care.

So successful was the emblem, that commercial enterprises began to capitalise on the good will of the symbol, with makers of medical supplies, household goods, even ladies shoes, branding themselves as “red cross”.

Concerned that such commercialisation would devalue the Red Cross emblem, and perhaps even cause confusion in times of armed conflict, the 1949 Geneva Conventions included an international law protecting the Red Cross.

This nurse is not affiliated with the Red Cross. Shutterstock

It can only be used in specially designated circumstances, and the use of the emblem in any non-authorised situations was prohibited.

In Australia, the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems are protected by the Geneva Conventions Act 1957. The emblems must not be used without first obtaining the written permission of the Minister for Defence, and penalties apply is the emblem is misused.

The question arises however: why should we care? Here in Australia, we’re not at war, and surely we would know that a “naughty nurse” costume or a home first-aid kit with a red cross on it wouldn’t actually have any relation to the work of the Red Cross?

But just because war isn’t happening now, doesn’t mean it will never happen. Misuse of the emblem, even unintentionally, and even in time of peace, weakens its effectiveness should war break out.

More importantly, using the emblem on goods and services that do have medical or humanitarian purposes can mislead people into thinking that somehow proceeds from the sale of these goods go to help the work of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross is a protected emblem, designed to help those who are most vulnerable in situations of war and humanitarian catastrophe – it shouldn’t be devalued by placing it on a box of bandages.

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