“All can, in one way or another, each in his own sphere, and within his own limitations, do something to help move the good work forward.”

These powerful words were uttered by Henry Dunant following the Battle of Solferino 150 years ago. The founder of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement was one who believed that individuals have the power to make a difference and why not? He was a living example of how one person managed to change the ethics and conduct of warfare which is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

On 24 June 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman arrived in a small town in Solferino while on his way to Algeria. He witnessed the Battle of Solferino (part of the Austro-Sardinian war) which resulted in 40,000 soldiers on both sides dead or wounded in a single day. They were left on the battle field with no medical assistance. Horrified by the sight, Dunant abandoned his business plan and instead devoted to care for the wounded. He mobilized the local population to distribute aid to wounded soldiers without discrimination and this became the basis of humanitarian law.

This year is particularly special for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IFRC; International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC; and National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, NS) because it is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, 90th anniversary of the IFRC and 60th anniversary of the “modern day” Geneva Conventions and most significantly the 4th Convention.

I will not attempt to provide the historical background of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement in detail. Instead, I would like to focus on the National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, IFRC and my own experience with them.

It wasn’t until five years ago when I first heard about the IFRC. When we talk about the Red Cross, we often think about the ICRC and since I met my husband who works for the IFRC, I began to understand more about the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement.

There is a Red Cross/Red Crescent society in almost every country today. In Malaysia, we have the Red Crescent Society and as a child, I remember being a member of the society in primary school. Unfortunately, I associated the society with marching in the sweltering heat of our tropical climate. I did not learn first aid, neither did I volunteer to raise fund for any victims of natural disaster. At that time, AIDS did not exist yet and I was definitely not aware of any food insecurity situation in the country, if there ever was. I hope that things have changed since then because being a member of the Red Crescent society is not about engaging oneself in boot camp activities.

About twenty years later, I learned that the IFRC is a federation of all the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike the ICRC, the IFRC is represented by the National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies from each member state, very much like the United Nations and each country can only have one National Red Cross/Red Crescent Society (based on one of its seven fundamental principles of unity).

Although the IFRC carries out all the activities one would expect; disaster management, food security, health, etc., one of its main functions is also to provide capacity building and support to local national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies. As such, a huge bulk of its mandate is to work closely with local NSs.

When my husband received a job placement in Ethiopia, I volunteered for the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS). It was then when I first learned about the dynamics of the Red Cross Movement having lived and worked with those who were either involved with the IFRC, ERCS or ICRC. I would say that the experience was invaluable as it broadens up my own scope of understanding in terms of human rights as well as institutional operations.

Some would like to define humanitarian law as the human rights aspects of war and what this essentially means is that even during a civil or international conflict, the basic rights of soldiers and civilians must be observed regardless of political, religious, gender, racial or other forms of orientation. Although this is more or less what the ICRC’s mandate is, the IFRC and NSs often concentrate on humanitarian relief during times of war and peace.

In many ways, I find that working for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement provides instant satisfaction when compared to the United Nations, which I worked for as a human rights officer several years ago. For instance, when there is a natural calamity, swift responses and actions are taken. There is no long discussion on diplomacy, international relations, politics or law. The main concern that triggers the whole movement is to save lives.

At a lower level where natural disasters are not the main issue, the Red Cross Movement concentrates on more basic needs such as health care, food distribution and over the past few years, tackling issues concerning climate change. Issues such as religious, political, cultural or criminal convictions are never in question. Neutrality is by far the most important principle which governs the whole Movement. To me, this is the essence of human rights.

Having said this, the intricacy of institutional relationships between the three entities (IFRC, NS and ICRC) can be a challenge and if so, it is mainly due to the issue of independence (they are all essentially independent bodies). Nevertheless, due to their guiding principles of neutrality and humanity, it is less complicated than the UN which is governed by State Members where politics often become the main issue of contention. The NS itself is independent from its own national government and hence should not be influenced by state policies.

As we slowly move into an era where human rights have become a major topic of concern, I would assume that many people often find it too daunting and dangerous to join in the struggles of activists who are often threatened by arrests and prison convictions in countries where civil and political rights are considered as devious forms of activities. If so, I would strongly encourage you to take up a humanitarian cause instead. While it is less “controversial”, the impact is not any lesser.

Providing basic needs to victims of natural disaster, learning first aid to save lives when it is needed, sensitizing people on HIV/AIDS and climate change, encouraging breastfeeding, educating people on road safety, etc. are all heroic acts that count towards sustaining humanity. You don’t have to become a champion for human rights by marching on the street in protest of government frailties, but you do need to take actions against other threats.

In conjunction with this year’s World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, let’s remember what Henry Dunant said 150 years ago:

“All can, in one way or another, each in his own sphere, and within his own limitations, do something to help move the good work forward.”


For more information, please refer to http://www.ifrc.org and http://www.icrc.org


Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife...