Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Development of International Humanitarian Law

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Development of International Humanitarian Law

Article excerpt

Notwithstanding its private-initiative origins, the International Committee of the Red Cross ("ICRC") has been the main driving force behind the development of international humanitarian law for 140 years. It was the ICRC that took the initiative which led to the adoption of the original Geneva Convention of 22 August 1864, an instrument that is the starting point of contemporary international humanitarian law and a landmark in the development of public international law; it was the ICRC that laid the groundwork for the subsequent developments of that law.

How was it that five individuals managed to have the initial Geneva Convention adopted? What was the significance of that treaty? What was the ICRC's role in the drafting of subsequent conventions and what is its role today in relation to the development of international humanitarian law? And finally, what is the outlook for the future? These are the questions this article sets out to answer.


The International Committee of the Red Cross came into being by chance. A business trip took Henry Dunant to Castiglione delie Stiviere, a few kilometers from where one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century had just ended. A decisive episode in the struggle for Italy's independence and unity, the Battle of Solferino (24 june 1859) was also the scene of the greatest slaughter that Europe had seen since Waterloo: the toll of just one day of fighting was some six thousand dead and almost forty thousand wounded. The medical services of the Franco-Sardinian armies were completely overwhelmed. Helped by their comrades and leaning on their rifle butts, the less seriously wounded managed to reach the township of Castiglione, where there would soon be more recumbent figures than able-bodied men. Dunant was not a doctor, and his business was urgent, but he was too compassionate to close his heart to the distress he was witnessing. Day after day, he visited the wounded in the Chiesa Maggiore and attempted to provide them with whatever comfort he could.1

On his return to Geneva, Dunant recorded what he had seen in a small book that was to mark an epoch: A. Memory ofSolfenno. After a description of the battle and the neglected state in which he had found the Solferino casualties, Dunant concluded with two proposals: the creation, in the various countries of Europe, of relief societies for wounded soldiers, which would mobilize private charity resources; and the adoption of a treaty giving protection on the battlefield to the wounded and to anyone who endeavored to come to their assistance.2

The first proposal was the starting point for the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies found in 181 countries today. The second was the source of contemporary international humanitarian law.

A Memory of Solfenno came off the presses in November 1862 and immediately aroused wide interest. Following publication, a five-man committee was formed in Geneva consisting of Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, General Guillaume-Henri Dufour, and Doctors Appia and Maunoir, the aim of which was to give shape to Dunant's ideas. After some hesitation, the committee-which -would soon be calling itself the International Committee of the Red Cross-convened a conference of government experts and well known philanthropists in Geneva, in October 1863. This conference laid the foundations for the relief societies and gave birth to the Red Cross.3

The following year, in response to an approach from the Committee,4 the Swiss Federal Council convened a diplomatic conference to adopt a treaty protecting the medical services of armies on the battlefield.


The Diplomatic Conference opened in Geneva on 8 August 1864 and adopted as the basis for its deliberations the draft prepared by the International Committee.5 On completion of its work, it adopted the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field of 22 August 1864. …

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