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Red Cross conference opens under shadow of Iraq

The ICRC headquarters in Baghdad came under attack in October Keystone

Red Cross workers gather in Geneva this week amid growing concern about the safety of humanitarian staff around the world.

This content was published on December 2, 2003 - 08:34

Last October’s bomb attack on the Baghdad office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has focused minds on the danger of aid work.

The 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent - which aims to establish Red Cross policy for the next four years - will be opened by the Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin.

All 179 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies will be in Geneva, together with the International Federation, the ICRC and the 191 states parties to the Geneva Conventions.

Joint workshop

The Swiss government and ICRC are to host a joint workshop at the conference, focusing on international humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflict.

In recent months, the Red Cross has become increasingly preoccupied with the task of protecting humanitarian workers as it strives to fulfil its mandate.

Ahead of the meeting, the Red Cross has identified what it believes are the humanitarian challenges facing the international community.

According to preliminary conference documents, “acts of violence aimed at spreading terror, and the fight against terrorism further complicate the work of humanitarian organisations.”

Security concerns

The Red Cross will be hoping for an expression of general concern from the conference about the risks aid workers face, as well as a commitment from the states parties to the Geneva Conventions that everything possible will be done to ensure their safety.

The central theme of the 2003 conference is the protection of human dignity.

The Red Cross has outlined four specific issues which it considers to be threats to human dignity, including the impact of weapons such as landmines, as well as the suffering endured by the families of those missing in conflict.

At the close of the conference on Saturday, delegates are expected to approve a declaration on protecting human dignity, together with a practical agenda for humanitarian action.

Emblem suitability

The conference will also address some longstanding internal issues, including the suitability of the Red Cross emblem.

Many in the movement believe the cross is too closely associated with Christianity and is no longer a suitable symbol.

While the red crescent is also an approved emblem, requests for recognition by the Israeli aid society, Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David), have yet to be approved.

A diplomatic conference convened by Switzerland in 2000 aimed to resolve the emblem problem by approving a third neutral symbol, which would allow societies such as Magen David Adom to place their own signs within it.

But the deteriorating situation in the Middle East delayed an agreement, and while a report on the emblem issue will go before this year’s conference, it is unlikely that any firm decisions will be taken.

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

The 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent takes place in Geneva this week.
The meeting aims to establish Red Cross policy for the next four years.
The central theme of the 2003 conference is the protection of human dignity.

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