Rebranding: always a pain. Throwing huge amounts of cash at pretentious design consultancies with interminable meetings about “core values”, endless iterations with focus groups, worries about brand recognition… then one department folds its arms and refuses to budge, and you have to start all over again. Plus, there’s all the effort you have to put into protection of the trademark and prosecution of infringement – because, for a brand to work, it has to have meaning.
It’s slightly harder when the brand in question is literally designed to save lives.
Under international law established in 1864, “use of the emblem for protective purposes is a visible manifestation of the protection accorded by the Geneva Conventions to medical personnel, units and transports.” The Red Cross symbol was created by reversing the flag of Switzerland, the home of the Geneva Convention.
However, it’s not the only emblem covered by this law:
In 1876 the Ottoman Empire declared that it would reverse its own flag for use as an equivalent emblem in the war with Russia (while still respecting the red cross) since the red cross “has so far prevented Turkey from exercising its rights under the Convention,because it gave offence to Muslim soldiers” – who mistook the cross for a symbol of Christianity. (This problem of religious connotation has dogged the Red Cross ever since.) The ICRC grudgingly accepted the Red Crescent into the Geneva Convention as a temporary measure while stressing that the situation was far from ideal; however, the Crescent has remained ever since and is now accepted as a core emblem.
Okay, so we’ve got two symbols to remember and respect. Not a universally perfect situation, but pretty good, as long as we don’t let any others in…
… apart from that one.
The “red lion and sun” was introduced by Persia (now Iran) at the end of the 19th century and is still considered a Red Cross emblem, though deprecated and not recommended: it’s been out of use for over 20 years, Iran having adopted the red crescent to line up with the rest of the Muslim world. The red lion and sun was grudgingly accepted into the Geneva Convention during the diplomatic conference in 1929, but at the same time the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) put its foot down and said that this was absolutely the last new national emblem they’d allow, no, really, no exceptions, and they mean it this time.
You know what’s coming, don’t you?
Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David) is the name of a Jewish relief agency that was created in (what was then) Palestine in 1931. Four years later, the Red Archway Society (Mehrab-e-Ahmar) was formed by the Afghan government. Both requested recognition and both were denied by the ICRC, which pointed at its foot, still down.
The diplomatic conference of 1949 is where trouble really started. Debate raged about the new state of Israel and the validity of the MDA symbol, opposed by the various Arab nations that had been defeated in the previous year’s war. But it was a more complex and varied issue than that, as François Bugnon explains in his excellent and thorough “Towards a Comprehensive Solution to the Question of the Emblem”:
It has often been considered that all the discussions on the emblem at the 1949 Conference centred on the examination and rejection of the Israeli draft amendment, but this does not put the matter in proper perspective. Indeed, although the Israeli proposal certainly gave rise to the most heated debate, it was by no means the only issue at stake. Other proposals are also worthy of note, especially those advocating a return to the unity of the protective emblem, whether by reverting to the single red cross sign or by adopting an entirely new sign devoid of any national or religious connotation. The Conference set aside the most innovative proposal — adoption of a new sign in place of the existing emblems. This idea was rejected by the Western States in the name of tradition and by certain Muslim States for religious reasons. Conversely, the Conference also turned down a Burmese suggestion that each State and each National Society be free to adopt the emblem of its choice, feeling that this would lead to an unacceptable degree of confusion.Thus the Conference rejected the two solutions which were perfectly equitable in that they would have imposed an identical rule on all States and all National Societies. In the circumstances, the 1949 Diplomatic Conference could only resort to the compromise it had inherited from the 1929 Conference: tolerating certain exceptions to the rule governing the unity of the emblem while attempting to limit their number. In rejecting the Israeli amendment, the Conference maintained the two exceptions that had been accepted in 1929
while refusing to allow any others.
The number of votes against the Israeli draft amendment far exceeded the number of States in conflict with Israel. It therefore seemed that the determining factor was fear of opening the way to a constant increase in the number of protective emblems, at a time when cracks were appearing in the colonial empires and a large number of countries were on the brink of achieving independence.
… and that’s the way things have stayed. MDA, being Israel’s only official medical service, has retained its logo; as a result, it has not been given full membership of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, nor are its ambulance and staff protected by the Geneva Convention.
As you can imagine, this is a heavily politically-charged situation: my interest was first aroused by this petition from the Simon Wiesenthal Center that was forwarded to me by relatives. (Hello, Kushnirs!) Israel and its supporters are understandably sensitive to any dictated exclusion from major international bodies. This particular case is being touted, from the Israel-supporting side, as a clear example of anti-Israel and anti-semitic discrimination. In this opinion piece from March 2000, the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer provides a notably nasty quote:
Particularly upset was Cornelio Sommaruga, then president of the ICRC. In a private meeting after her speech, and in the presence of several witnesses, he said to Healy: “If we’re going to have the Shield of David, why would we not have to accept the swastika?”
The comparison of Israel’s problems with the ICRC with its ongoing dramas in the United Nations is obviously incredibly tempting; Krauthammer (and many others) jump into it wholeheartedly. However, it’s also particularly blinkered:
- Sommaruga’s statement regarding the swastika is covered further by Krauthammer here, yet he chooses to rubbish rather than research the true meaning of the remark: the Ceylonese Red Cross had asked for the Hindu swastika – the origin of the reversed Nazi symbol – to be accepted by the ICRC in 1957. The Indian Red Cross Society also asked for a swastika in 1977. (See Bugnon, p29)
- As we’ve already covered, the ICRC’s limitation on new emblems came into effect before Magen David Adom (and the State of Israel) existed.
- Israel is not the only nation to have emblem-related troubles with the ICRC. As well as Afghanistan’s Red Archway situation in 1935 and the swastikas, Kazakhstan and Eritrea have also run into problems through combining the red cross and crescent so as not to offend its mixed-religion population. At this time Eritrea is still excluded from the Federation.
- The positioning of the American Red Cross as lone defender of Israel is relatively recent, and ignores its earlier opposition. Not only did the USA vote against Israel in the decisive 1949 conference, but it was one of only two nations to object to an Israeli reservation in 1955. (Bugnon again, p19)
- Israel’s American supporters appear to be providing a much more confrontational picture of its relationship with the Red Cross than actually exists. On the contrary, Magen David Adom itself proudly enumerates the advances in cooperation between the two organisations, as does the ICRC. Quote: “With the support of the ICRC and the International Federation, the MDA has increasingly fulfilled the role of a fully-fledged national society at the international level.”
- The limitation on new emblems is entirely justifiable in itself: not only would accepting new emblems on a per-nation basis require changes to international law for each, but they’d cause a large and confusing proliferation of symbols that would only weaken the Red Cross movement and its power to save lives. This is the most vital point here, and bears stressing: The universal recognition of the Red Cross emblems is what makes it work. Complicate the brand and you get people killed. If you want to know why the Red Cross has been so successful as a universal symbol of hope, the clue’s in the name.
Despite all this, the emblem issue still keeps MDA – and Eritrea’s medical services – from being full members of the Federation. So, how to fix it? Well…
… meet the Red Crystal, created by a special working group within the ICRC specifically to solve this problem. Not only is it a symbol devoid of religious and political connotations, the proposed protocol for its adoption specifically allows for its use in combination with a nation’s existing medical emblem. (The ICRC site has a large collection of resources on the topic – best start with the FAQ) Its passage into international law, however, is moving slowly – not just because of the huge amount of legal work required for solid ratification, but also due to the prevalent instability in the Middle East making this work harder and more risky to introduce. Bugnon:
Unfortunately, between the November 2001 Council of Delegates and the statutory meetings held in December 2003, the sun did not break through the leaden skies above the international scene. The bombings in Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca and Istanbul, the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and above all the continuing clashes in the occupied territories created a general climate fundamentally incompatible with any resolution of the emblem issue.
The lesson, as ever, is one of which the Wiesenthal Center should be reminded: Resolution of this pressing issue requires the ending of conflicts, not the creation of new ones.