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Mar 16 Founding of the Red Cross

Today we travel to Washington where the Senate ratified the first Geneva Convention of 1864, legitimatizing the International Red Cross and the American Red Cross.

The Modern Red Cross’s roots date to 1859, when Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessed the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in Italy, in which there was little medical support for injured soldiers. Dunant was born in Geneva into a devoutly Calvinist family, his parents stressed the value of social work, and his father was active helping orphans and parolees, while his mother worked with the sick and poor.

Dunant grew up during the period of religious awakening known as the Réveil, a revival movement within the Swiss Reformed Church of western Switzerland and spread to some communities in south-eastern France. Historians document its deep influence on Protestantism in France and Switzerland, with protestant clergy more than doubling its numbers in 15 years. Initially prompted by small Moravian communities and stimulated by British Presbyterians such as Robert Haldane or Henry Drummond, several members of the Free Church of Scotland had moved over to the Continent after Napoleon's fall. In this environment Dunant founded the so-called "Thursday Association", a loose band of young men that met to study the Bible and help the poor, and he spent much of his free time engaged in prison visits and social work. He founded the Geneva chapter of the YMCA and would be eventually awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize.

After witnessing the aftermath of Battle, Dunant published a book, A Memory of Solferino, in which he advocated for the establishment of national relief organizations made up of trained volunteers who could offer assistance to war-wounded soldiers, whichever side of the fighting they were on. The following year, Dunant was part of a Swiss-based committee that put together a plan for national relief associations. In 1906, to put an end to the argument of the Ottoman Empire that the flag took its roots from Christianity, it was decided to promote officially the idea that the Red Cross flag had been formed by reversing the federal colours of Switzerland, although no clear evidence of this origin had ever been found. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire began using a red crescent as its emblem, in place of a red cross; many Islamic countries continue the practice today. Then in 1992, bearing in mind China, where the majority did not associate with either symbols, a third, more neutral symbol was required, hence the birth of the red crystal. Although it is wise for an organisation with global humanitarian pretensions not to promote sectarian symbols it is very clear what Dunant’s motivations where back in the 1850’s. In fact his concern is rooted in far older movements who used the red cross as a symbol.

An order of Hospitallers arose in the early 12th century in the Middle East, a group of individuals associated with the Amalfitan hospital in Jerusalem. It was dedicated to John the Baptist and founded to provide care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. 400 years later the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God were founded in Granada, Spain and became known commonly as the Fatebenefratelli in Italy, "Do-Good Brothers" , and elsewhere as the Brothers of Mercy. The Order still carries out a wide range of health and social service activities in many countries.

At the start of the International Red Cross, Dunant gathered 12 European countries to sign the original Geneva Convention, which called for the humane treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, regardless of nationality, and the civilians who came to their aid. This was the first codified treaty and representatives of the US, Brazil and Mexico where present but were not signatories at first. The American Civil War had broken out three years earlier and Clara Barton a former teacher who was working in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., voluntarily began delivering food and supplies to Union soldiers on the front lines. By the end of the war, she had earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield,” and received permission from President Abraham Lincoln to operate the Missing Soldiers Office, to help locate missing troops for their families and friends. Over the course of several years, Barton and her team were able to track down some 22,000 men. At end of this exhausting period , she travelled to Europe to recuperate and while there she learned about the Red Cross movement. Upon her return to the U.S., she launched a campaign to get the U.S. to ratify the Geneva Convention of 1864; it did so in 1882, and she founded the American Red Cross.


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