The Red Crystal: A New Universal Emblem for Humanitarian Law

JURIST Guest Columnist Donna Arzt, Director of the Center for Global Law and Practice at Syracuse University College of Law, says that the recent adoption by Geneva Convention states of a Red Crystal symbol to supplement the traditional Red Cross and Red Crescent is a landmark symbolic step reflecting the universal non-exclusionary character of international humanitarian law. ...



A little-known development in international relations may turn out to be this past year's most symbolic if not most significant step forward in the decades-long impasse called the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last December, the signatory countries of the Geneva Convention adopted a new Protocol III concerning a new humanitarian emblem, the Red Crystal, joining the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems which purportedly represent the "humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence" of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. The Protocol will enter into force in January 2007.

Prior to the Protocol, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement was not a truly "universal" movement, at least in regard to the Israeli Red Shield of David disaster-aid society (or Magen David Adom), which was first chartered in 1929 and worked alongside other national Red Cross societies but was not permitted to fully join the international organization until this year. Its formal association allows the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to also join. This dual membership action encouraged the two to sign a formal operational agreement and both received crucial funding to assist in their life-saving work. Not surprisingly, the motion to accept the two into full membership was adopted in a vote after Arab and Muslim countries rejected all the compromise proposals aimed at reaching a consensus.

The Red Cross, a/k/a Geneva Convention, movement began its history in 1864 with, obviously, a single emblem, chosen for its simplicity and recognizability. The red cross — in those early days, often formed with two bloody bandages — on a white background was deliberately the reverse of the flag of Switzerland, itself neutral since 1815. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) claims that the red cross emblem is "sometimes wrongly perceived as having religious, cultural or political connotations." However, that is indeed the case because the Swiss flag had its origin in the flag of the 13th century German emperor, who always carried the cross as a holy sign, believing himself to be a protector of Christianity.

Due also to the cross's association with the Crusades, it is understandable that Ottoman officials chose during the Crimean War to use, instead, a red crescent which later was officially adopted by the Red Cross movement — along with the now defunct Iranian red lion and sun — as a recognizable emblem. However, in order to avoid a proliferation of emblems, it limited the authorization to the countries that were already using the crescent, though that number eventually grew to 32. Thus developed the official reason that the Israeli Red Shield of David was repeatedly rejected for six decades: to avoid international proliferation. Yet a Jewish state would have similar reasons as Muslim states for refusing to carry the cross.

For the past year, any national symbol can be displayed inside the Red Crystal, which is more than just an additional protective emblem for humanitarian workers, free of any extraneous political or religious connotation. (Eritrea, like Israel, uses the Crystal that way.) Unlike the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, the Crystal's origins are inclusive, not exclusionary. It truly reflects the universal character of international humanitarian law. That effectively means that access to humanitarian assistance is universally available.

The addition also makes the movement truly neutral. Until now, a Muslim country such as Indonesia could turn down much-needed aid from Magen David Adom after the tsunami on the ostensible grounds that it was an unrecognized society. Concomitantly, Israelis and Magen David Adom supporters worried that denial for so many years meant that a political statement was being made.

Adoption of the new emblem can have many implications for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Realization by Israel that the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is truly neutral might carry over to the United Nations, which heretofore in Israeli eyes has been tainted with anti-Israel bias. Cooperation between Magen David Adom and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society could pave the way for other forms of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Finally, this resolution of the Shield of David saga could help Israelis to understand why its one million Arab citizens find the official symbols of their state — such as the flag, with its own Star of David, or the national symbol of a seven-stemmed Menorah — so alien.


Donna Arzt is Dean's Distinguished Research Scholar and Director of the Center for Global Law & Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. She is the author of Refugees into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Council on Foreign Relations, 1997).
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