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The Red Cross: 1863

Henri Dunant, a Swiss citizen, spends the summer of 1859 in north Italy. On June 24 he is in Castiglione when a battle is fought nearby, at Solferino, with extremely heavy casualties on both sides. He helps the local inhabitants in their desperate attempts, without adequate equipment, to cope with the wounded brought into their town.

Three years later, in 1862, Dunant publishes an account of this searing experience (Un souvenir de Solferino – 'A memory of Solferino'). He puts forward the proposal that all nations should cooperate in peace time to prepare relief agencies equipped to cope with such situations.

His ideas evoke a rapid response, in the forming of an international committee. At a meeting in Geneva in October 1863, attended by delegates from fourteen nations, the principles of the Red Cross are agreed - as also is the name and the symbol (a red cross on a white ground, the colour reversal of the Swiss national flag which is a white cross on a red ground).

At a meeting in Geneva in the following year the first Red Cross Convention is drawn up, committing the signatory nations to certain standards in the treatment of the wounded, whether friend or foe.

This is the first of what become known as the Geneva Conventions, a series of codes which are regularly updated to take account of developments in warfare. Thus the Geneva Convention of 1929 sets standards for the first time for the treatment of prisoners of war; in 1949 civilians in wartime are included.

During the wars of the 20th century the red cross becomes the best known of all supranational symbols in Christian countries - as does an equivalent elsewhere, the red crescent, after its adoption by the organization in the Muslim world.

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