Today marks the 86th anniversary of the adoption of the Red Crescent as an official symbol of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on July 27, 1929. Both emblems have served as a symbol of humanitarian assistance for more than a century, and were later joined by a third emblem, a red crystal, in 2005. Here's a brief history of the emblems.
Prior to the emblems
Prior to the nineteenth century, the symbols used to identify medical services provided by armed forces varied according to their country of origin. The symbols were not widely known and therefore not respected nor protected under a universal legal system. This was becoming increasingly problematic given the rise of new firearms in the second half of the nineteenth century and their ability to wound or kill larger groups of soldiers more rapidly.
This was the case in 1859 when Henry Dunant, a Swiss citizen, stumbled upon the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino – part of The War of Italian Unification. After witnessing the suffering of more than 40,000 soldiers who were abandoned, dead or wounded on the battlefield, he returned to Geneva and documented his experience in A Memory of Solferino. In his recounting, he also suggests two ideas to help the plight of soldiers on the battlefield:
1. to promote the founding in each country of a voluntary society for relief to wounded soldiers;
2. to promote the establishment of a convention protecting the wounded and anyone endeavoring to assist them.
The establishment of the emblems
The first emblem came into being during the First Geneva Convention in 1864. The governments attending the Convention decided that a clear neutral sign was needed on the battlefield to protect medical staff and facilities. They chose a Red Cross on a white background, or the reverse of the flag of Switzerland.
Though the intent of the 1864 conference was to create a universal and neutral sign of protection, another symbol was introduced by the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish war from 1876-1878. While it still recognized and respected the Red Cross, the Ottoman Empire adopted the Red Crescent, which better suited its Muslim population. The Crescent was later recognized as an official emblem in 1929. Iran also adopted its own sign, the red lion and sun, which it used between 1929 and 1980.
After recognizing the need for a symbol devoid of any religious, national, or political connotation, a working group was established at the 1999 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in order to develop such symbol. After much deliberation with National Societies and States, it presented the red crystal, which was formerly adopted in 2005.
Protection of the emblems
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain several articles on the emblems, including placement, size, specificity of use, and the penalties for misuse. Additionally, they also require each State party to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols to legislate the use and misuse of the emblems at a national level.
To read more on the protection of the emblem, see this fact sheet on icrc.org.