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Red Cross

The Red Cross - an emblem of the world's largest humanitarian organization

Red Cross

Red Cross
Red Cross

A famous variation of the Greek cross is the emblem of the Red Cross movement1. More than one hundred years ago, this organisation was founded to aid those wounded in battle. The objective of the Red Cross emblem was to have a unified and distinctive sign that would be respected internationally.

Until the early 19th century, each country's army used a different coloured flag to mark its medical services: blood-red for France, peace-white for Austria, disease-yellow for Spain, morbid-black for other countries. Hospital tents, medical workers and vehicles transporting the wounded, would be as vulnerable as any other military collateral, so it was common sense for countries to agree on a standard and easily recognisable sign for all armies. Such was proposed in 1863 by the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, forerunner of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In 1864, the Federal Council of the Swiss Confederation convened a diplomatic conference which adopted the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.2 This included the use of the red cross emblem.

The reason a red cross on white background was chosen is not recorded in the minutes of the conference, so we are left to speculate:

  • It has been known for some time that the colour red seems to register something special in our brains. Fruit is generally red when it is ripe and good to eat. Seeing blood on somebody gives a 'red alert' that the person has been wounded and needs our sympathy or help. Alternatively, the person may be blood-stained from an opponent who has been vanquished. In this case, the bloodied person commands our respect.

    This influence on our attitude was measured at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton of Durham University analysed the results of combat sports and found that shirt colour appeared to influence the result, with nearly 55% of bouts being won by the competitor in red. In closely fought bouts it was 62%. "It should have been roughly 50% red, 50% blue, and this was a statistically significant deviation," Barton says. "Skill and strength may be the main factors - if you're rubbish, a red shirt won't stop you from losing, but when fights were relatively symmetrical, colour tipped the balance."3

    A few years later, sports psychologist Norbert Hagemann of the University of Münster, Germany, showed video clips of bouts to 42 experienced referees. They then played the same clips again, digitally manipulated so that the clothing colours were swapped round. The result? In close matches, the scoring swapped round too, with red competitors awarded an average of 13% more points than when they were dressed in blue.4

    Simply stated; bright red, as Coca Cola knows, is attractive. And this may be why the colour was chosen by the conference.

  • Alternatively, it might be from the red cross on white background of the crusader's cross. If true, then this historical origin is deliberately subdued to avoid offending Muslims. However, the Red Cross is devoted to conquering strife, and this warrants a fighting symbol.

  • Some say it is the bloodied bandage on a white bed-sheet, like the red/white stripes of a barber shop sign.

  • Others say the red cross is in recognition of early proponents Henri Dunant and Dr Brire. These men were from Switzerland and the red cross on white background is the inverse of the Swiss flag. To avoid confusion with the flag of England, the cross arms were shortened to produce a humetty cross, like that on the Swiss flag.


    Red Cross


    Tonga flag

    United Church of Zambia

    The situation was reversed for the Kingdom of Tonga, the only monarchy in the Pacific. Their flag of 1862 was almost identical to the Red Cross so they modified it to avoid confusion. The red signifies the blood of Christ and was probably inspired by the English flag.

    The logo of the United Church of Zambia (UCZ), shaped as an African warrier's shield, includes a cross superimposed on an outline of the country. This cross is usually shown in red to remind us of the blood shed by Christ. See the meaning of the Christian cross.

  • Way back in the Middle Ages, the red cross was used as a symbol of grief during the European plague (see Black Death Cross).
  • In 1575 Camillus de Lellis founded the Order of Camillians, brothers dedicated to looking after the sick and who wore a red cross on their black robes. St. Camillus became the patron saint of hospitals, hospital workers and nurses.

Although most Federal Council conference attendees were from 'Christian' countries, it is unlikely that they intended to give any religious significance to the emblem. (One of the aims of the group was humanitarianism between all nations and cultures.) But not everyone was comfortable about the red cross emblem. The armies of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) preferred a Muslim crescent rather than a Christian cross. So it was agreed that either a red cross or a red crescent could be used, or even a composite banner (see also Crescent Cross).

Later, Persia (now Iran) preferred their national identity of a red lion and sun. So in 1929, to avoid offending Muslims and Persians, the Diplomatic Conference agreed the emblem as a red cross or a red crescent or a red lion and sun. (The latter has since fallen into disuse and Iran has officially been using the red crescent since 1980.)

Red Cross
Red Cross (Europe)

Red Crescent
Red Crescent (Ottoman Empire)

Red Lion and Sun
Red Lion and Sun (Persia)

Understandably, Jews felt left out of this and Israel formally requested the addition of a Red Star of David.5

More recently, in 1977, India also requested a symbol different to the cross or crescent, as did several other countries.

Magen David Adom
Magen David Adom (Israel)

Red Suavastika
Red Wheel (India)

Mehrab-e-Ahmar (Afghanistan)

Red Lamb
Red Lamb (Congo)

Hakuai Sha
Hakuai Sha (Japan)

Red Cedar
Red Cedar (Lebanon)

Red Rhinoceros
Red Rhinoceros (Sudan)

Red Palm
Red Palm (Syria)

Sapa Unalom Daeng
Sapa Unalom Daeng (Thailand)

Red Star
Red Star (Zimbabwe)

These requests seem fair, but were rejected on the grounds that having too many emblems would defeat the original goal of having just one, easily recognisable symbol that could be used to identify collateral that should be protected. Territorialism goes against everything the movement stands for. The issue remained however that the main symbols, the cross and crescent, are used as religious symbols.

Therefore in December 2005 a Diplomatic Conference in Geneva adopted a Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, creating an additional emblem alongside the red cross and red crescent. Having no religious, political, racial, ideological or any other connotation, the new emblem adopted was the red crystal.

Red Cross
Red Cross

Red Crescent
Red Crescent

Red Crystal
Red Crystal

It is interesting to note from all this, that the most vociferous objectors to the emblem were the Israelis. As mentioned above, their frustration is understandable, but given that Israel is a relatively small country of 6 million people, they had a difficult time trying to persuade the international community that their symbol should be used.

The red blood / white bandage combination is seen in hospital related images worldwide, especially in the military

Saoirse Ronan as Briony in the 2007 film 'Atonement'
Saoirse Ronan as Briony in the 2007 film 'Atonement'

Even considering the number of Jewish adherents worldwide, Judaism is tiny compared to other religions. estimates there are only 14 million Jews in the world, compared to 2 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims. In contrast, agnostics, atheists, Hindus and Buddhists have shown remarkable restraint in the acceptance and tolerance of the red cross and red crescent.

And if this tolerance could be extended, to the point where we respect others as though they were family... No, let's go further than that... to the point where we love others as much as we love ourselves (see Matt. 22:37), then the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements would become obsolete.

On 10 March 1945, the US fire-bombed of Tokyo, burning to death 100,000 men, women and children in just 2½ hours. On the anniversary 60 years later, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara took a break from his usual right-wing nationalist barking, and said: "We must increasingly deepen our mutual understanding with people around the world in order to realise lasting peace."


The International Committee of the Red Cross emblem is protected under the Geneva Conventions Act and cannot be used without permission. Contrary to popular belief, the 'red cross' is not a public domain First Aid symbol. The International Standards Organisation recommends that a white cross on green background is used as a First Aid symbol.

An exception to this is Johnson & Johnson, the health-products giant, which has used the red cross as a trademark since 1887. In 2007 they sued the American Red Cross for using the symbol on fund-raising products that competed with J&J's. Like most conflicts, people get excited when money is involved. Fortunately in this case, both sides recognised they were wasting resources in squabbling over the issue. (See

Other Medical Crosses

The 'International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement' has no relationship with
the 'International Blue Cross and Blue Crescent Movement'.

Apart from the obvious difference in colour, the latter uses the same name and the same emblems (cross, crescent, etc.).

The Red version runs the largest humanitarian network in the world with headquarters in Geneva, a staff of 15,000, and approximately 97 million volunteers in National Red Cross Societies. The Blue version is run by an acupuncturist from his home in a Welsh village.

Make sure your donation goes to a bone fide organisation!

2: The Red Cross organisation was founded to aid those wounded in battle. A natural extension of this is that wars themselves are a bad idea.

Mankind is still working on that one.

3: Nature, vol 435, p 293
4: Psychological Science, vol 19, p 769
5: Judaism doesn't have a flag of its own. Various tribes had their own symbol and the Star of David is usually recognised as the Jewish emblem. Their desire to have their own symbol isn't as intolerant as it might sound - of the 1,500 Magen David Adom volunteer medics in Jerusalem, 75 are Arabs, and more are sought.