IHL relies on the use of certain emblems to identify and thus protect medical services in armed conflicts. The emblems are also used by components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement for identification purposes.

The use and misuse of the emblems is clearly defined in IHL. The two main uses of the emblem are their “protective” and “indicative” uses. Used protectively, the emblems serve as a visible sign in armed conflict of the protection accorded to medical services, equipment and buildings under IHL. Used indicatively, the emblems are employed by National Societies around the world to identify themselves as part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The ICRC and the International Federation may use the emblem at any time.

The history of the emblems

Currently, there are three emblems in use: the red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal, each having different a historical background, but exactly the same meaning and function.

The first emblem came into being in 1864. The governments attending the diplomatic conference which adopted the First Geneva Convention in that year decided that a clear neutral sign was needed on the battlefield to protect medical staff and facilities. They opted for a red cross on a white background, the exact reverse of the flag of neutral Switzerland. The resulting symbol had the advantage of being easily produced and recognizable at a distance because of its contrasting colours.

In the years that followed, a number of national relief organizations started being called “red cross societies” and the indicative use of the emblem became established.

The original intent of the 1864 conference was to create a universal, neutral and distinctive sign of protection, used and recognized by everyone. But just over a decade later, during the Russo-Turkish war, the Ottoman empire adopted the red crescent as its protective sign, while still recognizing and respecting the red cross. Persia, too, adopted its own sign and in 1929 governments formally recognized all three.

This situation lasted until 1980 when Iran dropped the old Persian sign – the red lion and sun - in favour of the red crescent. Since the 1990s there had been concern about respect for the neutrality of the red cross or red crescent in certain difficult conflicts. In 1992, the then president of the ICRC called publicly for the creation of an additional emblem devoid of any national, political or religious connotation.

In 2005 governments adopted an additional protective sign, the red crystal.

See ICRCRed Cross, Red Crescent, Red CrystalNational Red Cross and Red Crescent SocietiesMedical personnelWounded and Sick; Medical objects;






Suggested readings:
BOUVIER Antoine, “Special Aspects of the Use of the Red Cross or Red Crescent Emblem”, in IRRC, No. 272, September-October 1989, pp. 438-458.
BUGNION François, The Emblem of the Red Cross: a Brief History, Geneva, ICRC, 1977, 81 pp. & in IRRC, No. 193/194/195, April/May/June 1977, pp. 167-190/229-256/283-296.
BUGNION François, “The Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblems”, in IRRC, No. 272, September-October 1989, pp. 408-419.
BUGNION François, Towards a Comprehensive Solution to the Question of the Emblem, Geneva, ICRC, 4th ed., 2006, 99 pp.
BUGNION François, Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Crystal, Geneva, ICRC, May 2007, 111 pp.
MACCORMACK Timothy L.H., “What’s in an Emblem? Humanitarian Assistance under any other Banner Would be as Comforting”, in Melbourne Journal of International Law, Vol. 1/1, 2000, pp. 175-183.
MERIBOUTE Zidane, “The Emblems of the 1949 Geneva Conventions: their Content and Meaning”, in YIHL, Vol. 3, 2000, pp. 258-272.
PULLES Gerrit Jan, “Crystallising an Emblem: on the Adoption of the Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions”, in YIHL, Vol. 8 (2005), 2007, pp. 296-319.
SANDOZ Yves, “The Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblems: What is at Stake?”, in IRRC, No. 272, September-October 1989, pp. 405-407.
SLIM Habib, “Protection of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblems and the Repression of Misuse”, in IRRC, No. 272, September-October 1989, pp. 420-437
SOMMARUGA Cornelio, “Unity and Plurality of the Emblems”, in IRRC, No. 289, July-August 1992, pp. 333-338
Further readings:
BOUVIER Antoine, “Humanitarian Protection and Armed Conflicts at Sea: Means and Methods of Identifying Protected Craft”, in SyracuseJournal of International Law and Commerce, Vol. 14, 1988, pp. 759-765.
BUGNION François, “The 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 20-22 June 2006: Challenges and Outcome”, in IRRC, Vol. 89, No. 865, March 2007, pp. 163-173.
CAUDERAY Gérald C, “Visibility of the Distinctive Emblem on Medical Establishments, Units, and Transports”, in IRRC, No. 277, July-August 1990, pp. 295-321.
CAUDERAY Gérald C., “Means of Identification for Protected Medical Transports”, in IRRC, No. 300, May-June 1994, pp. 266-278.
CAUDERAY Gerald C. & BOUVIER Antoine, Manual for the Use of Technical Means of Identifications by Hospital Ships, Coastal Rescue Craft, Other Protected Craft and Medical Aircraft, Geneva, ICRC, 1995, 196 pp.
EBERLIN Philippe, Protective Signs, Geneva, ICRC, 1983, 73 pp. PICTET Jean, “The Sign of the Red Cross”, in IRRC Supplement, Vol. II, No. 4, April 1949, pp. 143-175
EBERLIN Philippe, “Technical Note on the Colours of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblem”, in IRRC, No. 233, March 1983, pp. 77-80.
EBERLIN Philippe, “La modernisation de la signalisation protectrice et les communications des unités et moyens de transport sanitaires”, in Studies and Essays on International Humanitarian Law and Red Cross Principles in Honour of Jean Pictet, Geneva/The Hague, ICRC/M. Nijhoff, 1984, pp. 47-75.
EBERLIN Philippe, “Underwater Acoustic Identification of Hospital Ships”, in IRRC, No. 267, November-December 1988, pp. 505-518
LANORD Christophe, “Quelques considérations sur le projet de Protocole III additionnel aux Conventions de Genève de 1949”, in L’observateur des Nations Unies, No. 10, Spring-Summer 2001, pp. 13-34.
MEYER Michael, “Protecting the Emblems in Peacetime: The Experiences of the British Red Cross”, in IRRC, No. 272, September-October 1989, pp. 459-464.
ROSENNE Shabtai, “The Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun and the Red Shield of David”, in IYHR, Vol. 5, 1975, pp. 9-54
SLIM Habib, “Protection of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblems and the Repression of Misuse”, in IRRC, No. 272, September-October 1989, pp. 420-437