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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Day of Peace and A History of Humanitarianism


Mary Jacoby Hastings
Sept. 21 is the International Day of Peace, which is traditionally marked by a ceremony at the United Nations. The occasion got me thinking about war and peace—not the novel, but the ideas of each.

The International Day of Peace is the only official commemoration ever declared by the United Nations. Devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples, the day was first established in 1981 by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly as a time of non-violence and cease-fire, calling upon people throughout the world to reflect for a moment on the universal goal of peace.

It was in a similar spirit that one of the greatest humanitarian movements in history was founded—although it was a time of violence on the battlefield, not peace—that led to the formation of what we now know as the Red Cross. Known as the “Father of the Red Cross,” Swiss businessman Jean Henry Dunant’s efforts led to the founding of the first Geneva Convention and inspired a humanitarian movement that is carried on today by 187 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world as well as by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In 1863, the concept of national relief societies was introduced. Participating nations agreed on a distinctive emblem marking persons and objects to be protected. The emblem was to reflect the neutrality of the armed forces' medical services and the protection conferred on them. Today that emblem can be found in three forms: the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal.

While national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies provide services to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross focuses its efforts on aiding people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence providing them with a meaningful response to their plight. ICRC reminds authorities and others of their legal obligations under international humanitarian law.

Members of the ICRC visit military detainees worldwide to see that they are treated with dignity and humanity. The ICRC is also tasked with a civilian protection role: making sure affected parties adhere to additional protocols added to the Geneva Convention in 1977 stating, “Civilians and all persons not taking part in combat may under no circumstances be the object of attack and must be spared and protected.”

The goal of ICRC’s Health Unit activities is to give people affected by conflict access to basic preventive and curative health care that meets universally recognized standards.
The ICRC Health Care in Danger project (set to run 2011-2015) aims to address the impact of illegal and sometimes violent acts that obstruct the delivery of health care, damage or destroy facilities and vehicles, and injure or kill health-care workers and patients, in armed conflicts and other emergencies. Lack of access to health care is probably one of the biggest humanitarian issues today in terms of the numbers of people affected.


As the United Nations commemorates the International Day of Peace, it is reassuring to know that the Red Cross is making every effort to protect those in harm’s way and alleviate suffering around the globe where peace does not exist.

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