In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of the Organization
  • Policies and Policymaking
  • Principles and Practice

International Law International Committee of the Red Cross
David Forsythe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0183


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the founding agency of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, this latter network sometimes referred to as the International Red Cross. The ICRC was officially organized in 1863 with a mission of encouraging help to the wounded in international war. It broadened its concern over time in a pragmatic response to human need, but is usually linked to war or other political violence. Its evolving focus on victims included not just the wounded but prisoners, civilians, refugees, those affected by certain means and methods of violence (e.g., poisonous and asphyxiating gases), missing persons, those in need of prosthetic services, the relatives of the detained, and migrants (defined broadly). Its focus also evolved in terms of situations: from international war to internal war, to internal troubles or tensions, to instability in vulnerable societies, to continuing need for especially water and sanitary services in post conflict societies, and to major cases of urban violence. First organized as a communications and support center for National Red Cross (and eventually Red Crescent) Societies, these now numbering some 190, it became an actor in the field itself. It recognizes but does not control these National RC Societies. Each operational unit of the RC network is legally independent. RC actors are linked by commitment to certain principles such as humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence, and universality. The ICRC operates ultimately according to its own statutes as a Swiss civil society organization. Its governing board is comprised of only Swiss nationals, and this mono-nationality is widely seen as promoting its neutrality, the Swiss state being pledged to permanent neutrality. Mono-nationality also eliminates national competition in appointment to, and decisions by, the governing board. Its president, in the contemporary era drawn from past officials of the Swiss state with experience in foreign affairs, normally has great influence within the organization. The governing board (the ICRC Assembly) is made up of unpaid volunteers and only meets periodically. There is a director general and supporting professional staff for management of daily affairs. The staff is multinational. By tradition the ICRC plays a prominent role in the development of the international law of armed conflict (aka international humanitarian law) such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions for Victims of War and Additional Protocols. Much law in this domain is now developed by courts and national documents, sometimes adding to customary international law, rather than in diplomatic conferences called by Switzerland. The ICRC prioritizes help to victims in the field and usually engages in quiet diplomacy and thus avoids public judgments about precise violation of this law, in order to facilitate its access to victims.

ICRC Publications

The organization has made available a vast amount of information about itself, the Red Cross (RC) network, and international humanitarian law. See the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) website. The publications listed in this bibliography are mostly independent sources (as best that can be determined), but with a few sources authorized or published by the organization when they fill a void or are especially informative.

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