The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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The Red Cross and the Red Crescent

The International Movement of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent consists of three types of independent institutions: the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The three components of the Movement meet every four years, at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, with representatives of the States Parties to the Geneva Conventions (as per Art. 1.3 of the Statute of the Movement). The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is organized according to its Statute, adopted by the Twenty-fifth International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in 1986. The ICRC and the Federation have their own Statutes.

Within the Movement, each institution is autonomous, with independent administrative bodies and separate programs. But each branch must respect the Movement’s seven Fundamental Principles of action: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality.

Humanitarian principles

The National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

These Societies are mentioned several times in the Geneva Conventions. They are responsible for promoting and disseminating the principles of humanitarian law and the ideals of the Movement, and for organizing relief operations, even in times of peace.

They are established in the territory of States Parties to the Geneva Conventions and serve as medical auxiliaries to the authorities. In times of peace, the National Societies make up a civilian health network (particularly in times of natural disasters, but also while carrying out activities such as first aid or humanitarian law training, blood banks, etc.). In situations of conflict, they serve as auxiliaries to the military medical services. Hence, their personnel is subject to military laws and regulations (Art. 2 of a standard statute of a National Society; GCI Art. 26).

International humanitarian law makes a distinction between the role of the ICRC and other impartial humanitarian organizations and that of National Relief Societies, which belong to one of the parties to the conflict. Humanitarian law does not recognize the National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent as neutral and independent humanitarian actors in times of conflict. It thus limits their authorized use of the Red Cross and other relevant protective emblems in times of war (GCI Art. 44).

Although the National Societies have the function of medical auxiliaries to government authorities in general, their aim is to retain sufficient independence of action from their own government to ensure that they always respect the seven fundamental principles of the Movement, listed below. Currently, 189 Societies are recognized by the ICRC.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Formerly the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

The International Federation (often referred to as the Federation) is the umbrella organization of the National Societies (Art. 6 of Statute of the Movement). It promotes the establishment and assists the activities of National Societies in each country. It also has the function of permanent body of liaison, coordination, and study between the National Societies, to which it should give any assistance they might request (Art. 6.4 of Statute of the Movement).

The Federation implements the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in situations that are not specifically addressed or covered by humanitarian law and hence are missing from the ICRC mandate. For instance, in times of peace, the Federation is in charge of responding to natural disasters.

In recent years, it has intervened increasingly in situations involving refugees, although the ICRC ensures that its own prerogatives established under humanitarian law are respected in times of armed conflict. An agreement concerning the organization of the Movement’s international activities was adopted by the Council of Delegates in Seville in 1997.

The Federation coordinates the projects of National Societies and provides them with operational support, such as financing expertise (Art. 5.1.a of Statute of the Movement). It coordinates emergency activities (e.g., in cases of earthquakes or epidemics) in which several Societies participate. The Federation may also directly carry out certain relief projects for victims of natural disasters (Art. 5.1.c of Statute of the Movement).

The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

The Red Cross’s humanitarian action rests on seven principles that were proclaimed in 1965 and further clarified in 1986 to be incorporated into the Movement’s Statute when the latter was revised.


International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavors to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation, and lasting peace among all peoples.


It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class, or political opinions. It endeavors to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.


In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature.


The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.

Voluntary Service

It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.


There can be only one Red Cross or one Red Crescent Society in any one country. It must be open to all. It must carry on its humanitarian work throughout its territory.


The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

After witnessing a battle in Solferino, Italy, in 1859, Henry Dunant wrote A Memory of Solferino , published in 1863. That year, Dunant created the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, with four other members. In 1876, it was renamed the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC still operates on the basis of the original structure. The Red Cross Movement succeeded in linking private initiatives, in terms of relief and humanity, with the necessary support of States.

Legally, the ICRC is a Swiss organization. Its mandate was conferred on it by the States Parties to the Geneva Conventions for the implementation of humanitarian law. Its Statute is annexed to those Conventions. The supreme policy-making body of the ICRC is the Assembly, which consists of fifteen to twenty-five members, co-opted from among Swiss citizens. The Assembly sets the principles and general policy of the ICRC and supervises all ICRC activities.

Approximately 50 percent of the regular budget is covered by the Swiss government. The extraordinary budget (for emergencies) is financed by States, National Societies, and private donations resulting from calls for funds for specific programs. It is thus a hybrid institution and unique in that it affirms its independence by establishing firm links with States. Furthermore, it benefits from means of operation that no other private organization enjoys, such as its seat as Observer at the UN, since 1990, and an international radio station frequency allotted by the International Telecommunication Union.

The ICRC has received the Nobel Peace Prize four times: through Henry Dunant, in 1901, and in 1917, 1944, and 1963. Dr. Peter Maurer has been the president of the ICRC since 1 July 2012; he succeeded to Jakob Kellenberger.

Within the Red Cross Movement, the ICRC remains independent, as guaranteed by its separate statute. Although it is a private organization, its mission is explicitly defined by the Geneva Conventions. It is therefore recognized and accepted by the States Parties to these conventions (Statute of 21 June 1973, most recently revised on 8 May 2003).

  • Of its own initiative, or basing itself on the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the ICRC strives to provide protection and assistance to victims of international and non-international armed conflicts or internal disturbances and tensions.
  • It is also the guardian of the Geneva Conventions. This means that it promotes the understanding and dissemination of humanitarian law and prepares eventual developments thereof.
  • It enjoys the status of Observer at the UN, in the sessions and work of the General Assembly. It maintains a permanent office at UN headquarters.

The ICRC was the driving factor in the drafting of international humanitarian law. It has retained a privileged relationship with governments since adopting the Statute of the Committee and the Conventions regulating the rules of war. States formally recognized it as a neutral and impartial actor and put it in charge of striving to ensure the rights of military and civilian victims in conflicts. The ICRC hence may intervene in all situations of armed conflict to ensure the protection of, and assistance to, victims of war.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols establish a number of rights and obligations to ensure the relief for, and protection of, victims of war. Some of these rights are reserved for ICRC activities (exclusive mandate), while others are foreseen for the ICRC and all other impartial humanitarian organizations (general humanitarian mandate).

Exclusive Mandate

The Geneva Conventions and the ICRC Statute give the organization an exclusive mandate for certain interventions.

Visiting Places of Internment and Detention

ICRC delegates have “permission to go to all places where protected persons are, particularly to places of internment, detention and work. They shall have access to all premises occupied by protected persons and shall be able to interview them without witnesses” (GCIV Art. 143). The same applies to prisoners of war (GCIII Art. 126). ▸ DetentionPrisoners of war

Monitoring the Implementation of Conventions

The ICRC has the mandate to receive any complaints based on alleged breaches of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts (Art. 4.1.c of ICRC Statute).

Furthermore, it promotes the development and dissemination of humanitarian law. It publishes commentaries on the Conventions and their Protocols and other reference texts concerning humanitarian law, to contribute to a better understanding of the issues by States, which act as legislators in such matters. The ICRC also defines the general principles of such law. In cases in which the texts are not clear, its role is not necessarily to defend an interpretation that favors the victims. However, it does strive for an improvement of the texts and regularly presents resolutions to be voted on by the International Diplomatic Conference (Art. 4.1.g of ICRC Statute).

De Facto Exclusive “Humanitarian” Mandate

The Geneva Conventions state that any impartial humanitarian organization may act as a substitute protecting power. In practice, however, only the ICRC has the diplomatic and effective potential to take on this role. Thus, it frequently participates in negotiations—for instance, concerning the freeing of prisoners of war. ▸ Protecting powers

General Humanitarian Mandate

International humanitarian law clearly recognizes the right of the ICRC and any other impartial humanitarian body to undertake relief and protection operations, in conformity with the applicable conventions. This right is established in the articles concerning the right of humanitarian initiative (GCI–III Art. 9, GCIV Art. 10, API Art. 8.1, and Art. 4.2 of ICRC Statute). It is reinforced by certain specific provisions, for instance concerning the sick and wounded (GCI–IV Common Art. 3), protected persons (GCIV Art. 30), and relief for populations (GCIV Art. 59).

Rights granted to the ICRC have become norms of customary law. Rule 124 of the 2005 ICRC customary IHL study prescribes that:

  1. In international armed conflicts, the ICRC must be granted regular access to all persons deprived of their liberty in order to verify the conditions of their detention and to restore contacts between those persons and their families.
  2. In non-international armed conflicts, the ICRC may offer its services to the parties to the conflict with a view to visiting all persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the conflict in order to verify the conditions of their detention and to restore contacts between those persons and their families.

Central Tracing AgencyHumanitarian principlesInternational humanitarian lawProtecting powersProtectionReliefRight of humanitarian initiative

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

17 Chemin des Crêts

CH 1211 Geneva 19, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 730 42 22

Fax: (41) 22 733 03 95

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

19 avenue de la Paix

CH 1202 Geneva, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 734 60 01

Fax: (41) 22 733 20 57

@ International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: http://

International Committee of the Red Cross: http://

For Additional Information: Forsythe, David P. “The ICRC: A Unique Humanitarian Protagonist.” International Review of the Red Cross 865 (March 2007): 63–96.

Haug, Hans. Humanity for All . Geneva: ICRC, 1993.

ICRC. Handbook of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement . 14th ed. Geneva: ICRC and Federation, 2011.

Lavoyer, Jean-Philippe. “Implementation of International Humanitarian Law and the Role of the International Committee of the Red Cross.” In International Humanitarian Law , edited by John Carey, William V. Dunlap, and R. John Pritchard, 213–25. Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2004.

Studer, Meinrad. The ICRC and Civil-Military Relations in Armed Conflict . Geneva: ICRC, 2001. Available at$File/ICRC_002_0799.PDF!Open .

Troyon, Brigitte, and Daniel Palmieri. “The ICRC Delegate, an Exceptional Humanitarian Player?” International Review of the Red Cross 865 (March 2007): 97–111.