International Committee of the Red Cross


Since the Red Cross has figured four times in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize (1917, 1944, and 1963), as well as in the award to Henri Dunant (1901), and has therefore been made the subject of various presentation speeches and Nobel lectures which give details of its inception, history, and activities, the following brief summary of its origins and present organization is intended as a frame of reference for all four of these awards rather than as the typical history ordinarily included for each award to an organization.


In February of 1863 in Geneva, Switzerland, the Société genevoise d’utilité publique [Geneva Public Welfare Society] set up a committee of five Swiss citizens to look into the ideas offered by Henri Dunant in his book Un Souvenir de Solferino – ideas dealing with protection of the sick and wounded during combat. The committee had as its members: Guillaume Henri Dufour (1787-1875), a general of the Swiss army and a writer of military tracts who became the committee’s president for its first year and its honorary president thereafter; Gustave Moynier (1826-1910), a young lawyer and president of the sponsoring Public Welfare Society, who from this time on devoted his life to Red Cross work; Louis Appia (1818-1898) and Theodore Maunoir (1806-1869), both medical doctors; and Henri Dunant himself.

Guided by Moynier’s talent for organization, the committee called an international conference for October of 1863 which, with sixteen nations represented, adopted various pertinent resolutions and principles, along with an international emblem, and appealed to all nations to form voluntary units to help wartime sick and wounded. These units eventually became the National Red Cross Societies, and the Committee of Five itself eventually became the International Committee of the Red Cross, with Gustave ldoynier as its president (1864-1910) both before and after it took this name.

As a result of the 1863 Conference, which hoped to see its Red Cross principles become a part of international law, an international diplomatic meeting was held at Geneva the following year at the invitation of the Swiss government. The assembly formulated the Geneva Convention of 1864. This international Convention for the Amelioration of the “Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field”, included provisions guaranteeing neutrality for medical personnel and equipment and officially adopting the red cross on a field of white as the identifying emblem. It was signed on August 22, 1864, by twelve states and was later accepted by virtually all.

The work of the Red Cross had been inaugurated. Three other conventions were later added to the first, extending protection to victims of naval warfare, to prisoners of war, and to civilians. Revisions of these conventions have been made from time to time, the most extensive being that of 1949.

Although the Red Cross has always given major service and often accomplished herculean tasks during time of war, it has achieved even greater service in its gradual development and operation of humanitarian programs that serve continuously in both peace and war.


The Red Cross, a strictly neutral and impartial worldwide organization is dedicated to humanitarian interests in general and to alleviating human suffering in particular, is composed of three basic elements.

I. The self-governing National Red Cross Societies, including the Red Crescent (in Muslim countries) and the Red Lion and Sun (in Iran), operate on the national level through their volunteer members, although they also participate in international work. Each must be recognized by the International Committee. Today numbering 114, these societies all have Junior Red Cross Societies as well. Virtually all have disaster relief programs, and many carry on welfare programs, with community health and safety instruction, and so on. Since World War II, many of the European and Asian societies have also established refugee services.

2. The League of Red Cross Societies, a coordinating world federation of these societies, was established in 1919 as the result of proposals made by Henry P. Davison (1867-1922) of the American Red Cross. The League maintains contacts between the societies; acts as a clearinghouse for information; assists the societies in setting up new programs and in improving or expanding old ones; coordinates international disaster operations. It functions under an executive committee and a board of governors on which every national society has representation.

3. The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC], a private, independent group of Swiss citizens chosen by co-optation (limited to twenty-five in number), acts during war or conflict whenever intervention by a neutral body is necessary, such action constituting its special field of activity. As guardian of the Geneva Conventions and of Red Cross principles, it promotes their acceptance by governments, suggests their revision, works for further development of international humanitarian law, and recognizes new Red Cross Societies; it sends its Swiss delegates into prisoner-of-war camps, supervises repatriation, operates the Central Tracina Agency, supplies material relief, and the like.

The International Red Cross Conference, which met for the first time in 1867, is the highest legislative body. It is composed of representatives of the National Societies, the League, the International Committee, and the governments that have signed the Geneva Conventions. Meeting every four to six years, it reviews Red Cross activities and the operation of the Conventions in practice, taking under consideration, whenever necessary, any suggested revision of the Conventions or the adoption of new ones. (Actual revision and adoption are matters for a diplomatic conference convened by the Swiss government in its role as the custodian of the Conventions; texts submitted to such a diplomatic conference would be prepared by the ICRC with the expert assistance and previously approved by an International Conference of the Red Cross.) Between Conferences, coordination of the work of the League with that of the Committee is ensured by the Standing Commission of the International Red Cross.

Selected Bibliography

This bibliography, like the preceding «history», is intended for reference in connection with all awards to the Red Cross: to the International Committee of the Red Cross (1917, 1944, and 1963) and to the League of Red Cross Societies (1963).

Boissier, Pierre, Histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge de Solférino à Tsoushima. Paris, Plon, 1963.

Buckingham, Clyde E., For Humanity’s Sake: The Story of the Early Development of the League of Red Cross Societies. Washington, D.C., Public Affairs Press, 1964.

Cousier, Henri, The International Red Cross, transl. by M.C.S. Phipps. Geneva, ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], 1961.

Draper, G.I.A.D., The Red Cross Conventions. New York, Praeger, 1958.

Dunant, Jean Henry, A Memory of Solferino, English translation of Un Souvenir de Solférino. Washington, D.C., American National Red Cross, 1939.

Huber, Max, Principles and Foundations of the Work of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1939-1946. Geneva, ICRC, 1947.

International Review of the Red Cross. English edition (since 1961) of the Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, monthly publication of the ICRC, Geneva (since 1919).

Joyce, James Avery, Red Cross International and the Strategy of Peace. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1959. New York, Oceana Publications, 1959.

Junod, Marcel, Warrior without Weapons, with a Preface by Max Huber. Transl. by Edward Fitzgerald of Le Troisième Combattant. New York, Macmillan, 1951.

Liste des publications du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge de 1863 à 1944, compiled by Élie Moray, G. Vuagnat, and Daniel Clouzot. Genève, 1945.

Manuel de la Croix-Rouge internationale. Genève, Comité international de la Croix-Rouge et Ligue des sociétés de la Croix-Rouge, 1951.

Patrnogic, Jovica, «The Red Cross as a Factor of Peace», in International Review of the Red Cross, 87 (June, 1968) 283-294.

Pictet, Jean S., ed., Commentary: The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. 4 vols. Geneva, ICRC, 1952, 1958, 1960.

Pictet, Jean S., Red Cross Principles. Geneva, ICRC, 1956.

Red Cross World. Publication of the League of Red Cross Societies, Geneva (since 1919). [Title varies prior to 1952.]

Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Its Activities during the Second World War, Sept. 1, 1939-June 30, 1947. Geneva, ICRC, 1948.

Siordet, Frédéric, «A Hundred Years in the Service of Humanity», in International Review of the Red Cross, 29 (August, 1963) 393-428.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

This text was first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1963

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