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Red Cross tackles contentious emblem issue

The Red Cross movement is today embarking on a process that could lead to a rare amendment to the Geneva Conventions and the admission of Israel into the Red Cross fold.

The Red Cross movement is today embarking on a process that could lead to a rare amendment to the Geneva Conventions and the admission of Israel into the Red Cross fold.

At issue is the movement's most important assets - the Red Cross and Red Crescent, one of the most recognisable brands in the world. For a small minority of countries, however, these symbols - the only ones permitted under the Geneva Conventions - are unacceptable.

Countries like Kazakhstan and Eritrea would like to use an emblem combining the Cross and the Crescent, while Israel would like to use the Red Star of David. Indeed, Israel's humanitarian group, Magen David Adom (MDA) has for decades been denied full membership of the Red Cross federation, because its emblem is the Red Star of David.

Last November, an international conference of the Red Cross movement decided it was time to resolve the issue once and for all, and so it set up a working group to come up with a solution that would satisfy everyone. Now,
as the group meets for the first time in Geneva it seems that solution is on the table.

"The solution is that there is a new, neutral emblem," says Chris Bowers, of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "One of the working figures is a red diamond. Those societies what are unable to accept the cross or the crescent can use this third emblem, and they will be allowed to put their own logo at the bottom of the emblem." This would mean the MDA could continue to use the Red Star of David, but within an internationally-acceptable symbol.

"This is not like Coca-Cola changing its logo," Bowers said. "This is something that our field workers use to cross front lines."

One of the fears of the Red Cross movement is that a proliferation of symbols would dilute the power of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

"Clearly it would, in the long-term, reduce the protective power of the emblems if they multiplied in number," says Ian Piper of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "If we had the Red Star of David, and then Asian countries had symbols that they wanted to use, we'd end up with a lot of confusion."

"The idea is that the third symbol would stop that proliferation of emblems. We would have three emblems we could promote as the protective and indicative emblems, and this would secure one of our main aims, which is to ensure that the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the new emblem continue protecting and saving lives," he said.

The Red Cross symbol was originally used because it was an inversion of the Swiss flag. The Crescent simply because a cross has negative associations in some party of the Arab world. The Red Cross movement is clearly upset that some people - including the American Red Cross - have sought to turn the question of the emblems into a political or even religious issue. However, Piper believes it can be turned to the Red Cross's advantage.

"A third neutral emblem might reduce the perception that the emblems are in some way religious. The intention of the founders of the Red Cross was that this should be a neutral, impartial symbol, and if through this process we can reinforce this point, then that would be a step forward," he said.

If the working group does come up with a proposed solution this week in Geneva, it will pass it on to the standing commission elected to prepare for the next international Red Cross conference in nearly four year's time. The commission can then call a diplomatic conference or even a full-scale international conference to approve the necessary changes to the Geneva Conventions.

Both the ICRC and the Federation seem happy to admit that the continued exclusion of Magen David Adom is wrong, and that it wants to rectify the situation, but they are clear that any solution has to be acceptable to everyone.

"The MDA is a valued member of the Red Cross movement, and it is a matter of regret that it is not a full member. It is clear that the current situation isn't acceptable," Bowers says. "But I have to stress that its membership must have an international consensus. It's not just up to the ICRC to decide."

by Roy Probert

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