“Symbolism,” according to Edward N. West in “Outward Signs,” his classic study of Christian symbols, “is so powerful that the message conveyed, regardless of origin or context, is perfectly clear.”
To its lasting regret and perplexity, the Red Cross has found that observation to be all too true. When the international humanitarian organization was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in1864, the symbol of a red cross on a white field was adopted, not for its religious significance, but — by reversing the Swiss flag — as a tribute to that country’s tradition of neutrality. In “origin and context,” the red cross was intended to transcend national borders and religious differences, not to suggest them.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the world set the idealistic Europeans straight — just 12 years, in fact. During the Crimean War, the Ottoman Turks understandably saw the red cross as an unambiguous Christian symbol and at once began using a red crescent on a white ground instead, so as not “to give offense to Muslim soldiers.” By the turn of the century, other requests were being floated: Persia wanted a red lion and sun, Siam a red flame. Ultimately, the Geneva Convention of 1929 officially recognized the red cross, the red crescent and the red lion and sun (although Iran dropped use of the last in 1980). This decision was reaffirmed by the 1949 Diplomatic Conference to revise the Geneva Conventions, thus closing the door on any further proliferation of emblems. Or so it was hoped.
There was never a chance that more countries would not come knocking. Once Muslim countries had won the right to use an explicitly religious and regional symbol, the red cross was, ipso facto, made a religious and regional symbol too. Naturally, there were objections to both: As early as the 1930s, Palestine — and later Israel — wanted the red shield of David, and Afghanistan requested recognition of a red mosque. More recently, India has asked permission to use a red swastika and Zimbabwe a red star. Some countries, like Kazakstan and Eritrea, want to use both the red cross and the red crescent.
For 50 years, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have acceded to none of these requests, fearing that the ensuing circus parade of emblems would undercut the whole point of having an emblem at all: to provide a universal, supra-partisan sign that confers clear identification and protection. At present, 176 countries use the red cross and 30, including Iran, use the red crescent. But dissatisfaction and pressure have mounted to the point where the problem has had to be addressed. At the end of this month, it may finally be resolved.
Representatives of the 189 nations that have signed the Geneva Conventions will meet in Geneva on Oct. 25 to consider a draft protocol to authorize an additional emblem. Consisting of two facing red chevrons, the new emblem would be “free of any national, religious or other connotation,” but would also have space for any one of the cross, the crescent, the Star of David or a combination of cross and crescent. No other emblems would thereafter be permitted. In time of war, only the chevrons would be used. The hope is that this remarkably clever and creative proposal will finally settle the most contentious outstanding anomaly — the fact that some countries’ humanitarian organizations have been denied international recognition because of an outdated legal impediment.
There is some opposition to the plan. The American Red Cross Society, for example, while supporting Israel’s claim for recognition of the Star of David, rejects the chevron because of its military connotations and because it “is also the symbol of an international oil company.” Others question why, if the Star of David is added to the list of emblems acceptable for use with the double chevron, other future signatories to the Geneva Conventions should not press claims for further exceptions.
Yet it seems clear that the movement has little choice but to proceed with the compromise. The obvious best solution would be to have a single emblem that was universally acceptable — like the Olympic rings. But that option was foreclosed on as soon as the red cross, with its powerful symbolic resonance, was adopted way back in 1864. Since then, proposals to abandon the cross have met with a s much opposition as proposals to make it the organization’s sole emblem. At this point, there is no way forward but to adopt the overarching chevron, or some other indisputably neutral design, and hope that in the coming years and decades it will become as recognizable on the battlefield as the cross and crescent have been in the 20th century.
It’s either that, or the obviously absurd hope that there will be no more battlefields.
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