The International Committee of the Red Cross – 1917

The only Nobel Peace Prize awarded during the years of World War I was that for 1917 given to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The award ceremony took place on December 10, 1917, at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, with Mr. Jørgen Gunnarsson Løvland, chairman of the Nobel Committee, presiding. After the award announcement, Mr. Ragnvald Moe, secretary to the Nobel Committee, delivered the only speech of the occasion, an account of the origins and development of the International Committee of the Red Cross and of the Prisoners of War Agency it had established in 1914.

The speech is briefly reported in the Oslo newspapers, but there is no text of the speech available. However, an account of the Committee and its work, covering what is apparently much the same subject matter, appears in Les Prix Nobel en 1914-1918. Since the usual Nobel lecture given by the prizewinner was not delivered in this case, the Les Prix Nobel account, translated from its French text, is given here in order to provide more specific information about the International Committee and its work (from 1863 through this period of WWI) than is given in the brief history of the Red Cross.

The lnternational Committee of the Red Cross was founded in Geneva in 1863 to work for the realization of the magnanimous sentiments expressed the year before in the famous book Un Souvenir de Solférino [A Memory of Solferino] by a young idealist from Geneva, Henri Dunant. The Committee’s objectives were: the creation, in all countries, of societies devoted to aiding the sick and wounded in time of war; the establishment of an international convention for the reciprocal protection of soldiers wounded on the battlefield; and the proclamation of the neutrality and inviolability of ambulances and hospitals. The first president was General Dufour who was, upon his death in 1875, succeeded by Gustave Moynier, who held this post until 19101.

The result of the efforts of Henri Dunant and of the Geneva Committee was the Geneva Convention2 concluded in 1864 by an international conference of sovereign governments.

In the years that followed until the 1914 War, the Geneva Committee faithfully pursued the implementation of its program by encouraging the organization of Red Cross Societies, which were successively established in nearly all the civilized countries. Since 1869, by publishing an International Bulletin, it has tried to serve as a link between the various national societies and has furthermore periodically organized international conferences of Red Cross Societies. As the provisions of the Geneva Convention appeared, from the first, to be incomplete, the Committee has made continuous efforts to improve them and to extend their principles to naval warfare. The desired revision was made at Geneva in 1906 when an international conference adopted the text of a new Convention3.

During the World War from 1914 to 1919, the International Committee took up the role of moral guardian of the Geneva Convention. It tactfully but firmly reminded the governments of the belligerent nations of the principles of the Convention and sent protests in cases of clear violation of these principles. It collected the funds necessary for the development of Red Cross organizations in the belligerent countries. It sent delegations to the various war fronts to investigate and to improve the situation of the wounded. The Committee took the initiative in the exchange of seriously wounded prisoners sent back through Switzerland to their own countries; it also took the initiative in arranging for the internment in Switzerland of wounded officers of the belligerent parties. The president of the Committee from 1910 until 1917 was Gustave Ador, who was then succeeded by Édouard Naville4.

The most important new measure taken by the Committee during the war, however, was the establishment in Geneva in August, 1914, of an Agence internationale de secours et de renseignements en faveur des prisonniers de guerre [Central Prisoners of War Agency]. One of the principal objects of this agency was to supply information to families concerning the whereabouts and welfare of the prisoners. Its importance has been universally recognized from the outset. The detaining powers regularly sent official lists of prisoners to the Agency and authorized it to apply for information to the commandants of prison camps and to the directors of hospitals. The Agency had to limit its operations to the western front; but the Committee also organized similar institutions for the eastern front.

1. Guillaume Henri Dufour (1787-1875) was active president 1863-1864 and honorary president from 1864 until his death. Gustave Moynier (1826-1910) was active president 1864-1910. See history.

2. See history.

3. Acting after the 1899 Hague Peace Conference adopted a convention for the adaptation to maritime warfare of the principles of the Geneva Convention of 1864, the Geneva Congress of 1906, with representatives from over thirty nations present, expanded the original 10 articles of the 1864 Convention to 33.

4. Gustave Ador (1845-1928), Swiss statesman, resumed the Committee presidency for the period 1920-1928. Vice-President Édouard Naville (1844-1926), Swiss Egyptologist, was acting president in the three-year interval, 1917-1920, while Mr. Ador was a federal councillor and in 1919 president of the Swiss Confederation.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1901-1925, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1917

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