The Red Cross

Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Swiss Federation emblems

In a few seconds … thousands of human beings in the streets and gardens in the town centre, struck by a wave of intense heat, died like flies. Others lay writhing like worms, atrociously burned. All private houses, warehouses, etc. disappeared as if swept away by a supernatural power. Trams were picked up and hurled yards away, as if they were weightless; trains were flung off the rails …

This could be from a synopsis for the introductory scene to some Hollywood disaster film about the last day of the world. Actually, it’s an eye-witness description written by Dr Marcel Junod, the first foreign doctor to reach Hiroshima, Japan, after the atom bomb attack at 8:15 am on 6 August 1945.1 Dr Junod was a Swiss doctor who was one of the most accomplished field delegates in the history of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It was another Swiss national, Henry Dunant, who (almost a century earlier) had made proposals to set up, in peacetime and in every country, volunteer groups to take care of casualties in war time. This became the Red Cross, whose instantly recognisable symbol is actually the heraldic emblem of the Swiss Confederation in reverse. The Red Cross organisation now exists in 183 countries around the globe.2

Meanwhile, in 1876, war broke out between (modern day) Russia and Turkey. The Ottoman Empire declared that it would use a red crescent on a white background, in place of the red cross, because it was believed that the cross was offensive to Muslim soldiers. Today, 32 national societies use a red crescent instead of a cross.3

In South Africa, the South African Red Cross Society and Legal Protection of Certain Emblems Act 2007 falls under the auspices of the Minister of Health, and recognises the South African Red Cross Society as the national Red Cross society for the Republic. In terms of the Act, the red cross and red crescent are protected as ‘the emblem’.

  1. It is a criminal offence to use either emblem, or an imitation thereof, or words describing either emblem, unless4 you:
    • fall under the protection of the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols;5 or
    • are connected with the ICRC, or the Red Crescent Movement, or any of their bodies; or
    • have been authorised by the Minister of Health or the Minister of Defence; or
    • are authorised by one of the Geneva Conventions; or
    • use the emblem, imitation, or words for the purposes of bona fide research at a recognised educational or research institution, or for the purpose of bona fide news reporting in the media.
  2. If a corporation commits the offence, the director or member of its management who knew of or could have prevented the offence is also liable.6
  1. – ‘The Hiroshima disaster – a doctor’s account’. 

  2. ‘The History of the Emblems’. 

  3., loc cit

  4. Section 9(2) read with 9(1) of the Act. 

  5. These are identified in the Schedule to the Act. 

  6. Section 9(3) of the Act.