Red Cross no ordinary symbol
By Dr Michael Gliksman*
Many of us associate the image of a red cross with the provision of medical services or assistance.
This association is unsurprising given that this is often how the symbol is portrayed in the media and popular culture.
Unfortunately, it is not well understood that the symbol of the red cross – as well as the red crescent and red crystal – has special meaning and protection under Australian and international law.
The red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal emblems are used in war zones to indicate that a person, vehicle or building is not part of the conflict, but is providing impartial medical aid and assistance to wounded soldiers, prisoners-of-war or civilians.
Every day, the emblems are used for these purposes to save lives – not just of the people who require assistance, but also of the staff who put themselves in dangerous situations. It is for this reason that the emblem must be protected and understood universally as meaning ‘Don’t Shoot!’
The emblem can be worn by medical military personnel and religious military personnel, as well as Red Cross workers. Due to the importance of the emblems, their improper use in conflict situations can constitute a war crime.
The protected status of these emblems is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols. In turn, the emblems are protected under Australian law in the Geneva Convention Act 1957 (Commonwealth).
As outlined in this Act, use of the red cross emblem in Australia, without the permission of the Minister of Defence, is an offence.
Even the Australian Red Cross must have Ministerial approval to use the emblem, and then only within strict guidelines to indicate a link to the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement.
Australian law also protects anything “so nearly resembling any of the emblems” of the Red Cross “as to be capable of being mistaken for” the emblems. This means that dark orange crosses or red crosses on backgrounds other than white also should not be used.
The idea for a universal protective emblem was created by the founder of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, Swiss citizen Henry Dunant, who witnessed the horrors of the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1857 and the inadequate medical assistance that was provided to the wounded.
Mr Dunant was inspired by the Swiss flag (white cross on a red background) as a symbol of neutrality, and switched the colours to create the first Red Cross emblem.
In recognition of these origins, and the potential for confusion, Australian law confers on the Swiss flag the same protection accorded to the red cross, red crescent and red crystal symbols. The legislation precludes the use of a white cross on a red background.
Australian Red Cross assists the Minister of Defence to ensure the red cross emblem is correctly used and understood by the Australian community.
Often, when Red Cross contacts organisations that are misusing the emblems, we are asked why protection of the emblem in Australia matters.
The conflicts where these symbols are used are so far away and unlikely to occur in Australia, so surely these small uses of the symbols couldn’t possibly make a difference?
The answer is that any use of the emblems outside their purpose dilutes their authority and power to protect during conflict.
Every country in the world is a party to the Geneva Conventions. By doing so, all have agreed that these are universal symbols of protection, and are to be understood as such everywhere.
There are a range of alternatives to the red cross that can be used.
For instance, the image of a white cross on a blue background is used in common street signs around Australia to indicate the location of a public hospital.
Similarly, a white cross on a green background is used for occupational health and safety and to indicate first aid.
Australian Red Cross works to build understanding in the community of the protective authority of the emblems.
We contact organisations who misuse the emblem to make them aware of the emblems’ meaning and their proper use.
Australian Red Cross asks for your assistance to ensure that the true meaning of the red cross emblem is upheld in Australia.
Not using the red cross emblem is a small but meaningful way to contribute to the safety of Red Cross workers and military medical personnel, as well as the people they are trying to protect.
If you notice an emblem misuse, please notify the Australia Red Cross so that we can continue our education work. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, please visit Australian Red Cross’ website: http://www.redcross.org.au/the-emblem.aspx
* Dr Gliksman is a member of the Australian Red Cross International Health Law Committee.