Issue 136: Diplomatic Conference Will Vote on Admitting Magen David Adom into the Red Cross

An international injustice that has persisted for decades may soon come to an end.  On December 5th and 6th, here in Geneva, a Diplomatic Conference is expected to adopt a proposal that would finally provide recognition to the Red Shield of David emblem.  This would in turn open the door for the admission of Israel’s Magen David Adom–after 75 years of exclusion–into the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The upcoming conference will seek to adopt a Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions that contains two key elements.  First, under international law, protective status would be granted to an additional emblem, the Red Crystal.  Any humanitarian society in the world would be entitled to use the Red Crystal in the same manner as the Red Cross or Red Crescent are used today.

Because the Red Crystal is devoid of any possible religious, ethnic or national connotation, this new emblem would particularly appeal to ICRC missions in zones such as Iraq, where use of the Red Cross has often proved dangerous.  Moreover, national societies would be entitled to use the Red Cross and the Red Crescent together, by placing both emblems within the Red Crystal.  This would offer an important solution to countries with mixed Christian and Muslim populations, such as Eritrea and Cyprus.

Second, the Additional Protocol would recognize the Red Shield of David emblem, in two separate ways:  (a) the MDA would be entitled to use its historic emblem within Israel’s national territory; and (b) when operating outside its territory–as it did in providing disaster relief to Tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka–it would have to place its Red Shield within the Red Crystal emblem.

The history of the emblem dates back to the beginning of the movement, in 1863.  The first Geneva Conference of that year decided that a distinctive symbol, a red cross on a white background, would be worn by medical personnel to grant them immunity from combat in the field, allowing them to better treat injured soldiers.  The emblem was modeled on the white cross on the red Swiss flag, with the colors inverted.  Although it is denied that the Red Cross ever had any religious significance, it was interpreted as such by the Ottoman Empire, which unilaterally adopted the Red Crescent during the Russo-Turkish War.  Many years later, the Geneva Conference of 1929 officially recognized the Red Crescent, as well as the Red Lion and Sun (the emblem used by Iran until 1980, when it switched to the Red Crescent).

The MDA was founded in 1930.  At the Diplomatic Conference of 1949, the Israeli delegation requested recognition of the Red Shield of David emblem, but this was voted down for a variety of reasons.  In recent years, the main opposition has come from Arab and Muslim states, as a means to isolate and demonize Israel within the international arena.  Just as the anti-Israel campaign at the U.N. has grossly damaged that organization’s credibility and effectiveness, the Arab-led rejection of the Magen David has likewise undermined the universality and neutrality of international humanitarian law.  Today, the MDA remains the only national humanitarian society that is excluded from the International Federation because its symbol is not yet recognized.

Efforts in the late 1990’s culminated in the preparation of the current protocol, which was slated for adoption at a conference convened for October 2000.  However, in September of that year, with the outbreak of Palestinian riots that became known as the second Intifada, the Swiss government decided to postpone the conference, deeming the international climate non-conducive for adoption.  The draft protocol was circulated, but no concrete steps were taken towards a conference–not until March of this year.  It was then that Switzerland, as depositary of the Geneva Conventions, initiated discussions with states to determine attitudes toward a Diplomatic Conference.  This culminated in an informal session of ambassadors held in Geneva in September.  At the conclusion of the September consultations, the Swiss Government announced it would convene a conference by the end of this year.  On November 7th, this was made official, and the date of December 5th was set.

To forestall the convening of a conference, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), numbering 56 states, adopted a resolution at its June 2005 meeting in Yemen, declaring that the time is not yet ripe.  Since there are no good substantive arguments to be made against the proposed amendments, the OIC has always relied on the delaying tactic.  Not just now.  Later.  When the time is ripe, when conditions improve–later.

The strategy worked in 2000.  But in 2005, it did not.  The conference has been called, rendering the timing objection moot.  The OIC has no arguments left to make.  Still, with or without reasons, if the OIC’s 56 states act as a bloc, they could pose a strong opposing force at the conference.

The best hope for mollifying significant OIC opposition lies in the attempt of the MDA and the Palestinian Red Crescent to hash out an agreement to resolve disputed issues concerning humanitarian activities in the West Bank.  Assuming the Palestinians sign on, the OIC would be hard pressed to be more Catholic than the Pope.

Since our founding in 1993, UN Watch has vigorously pursued the cause of the emblem–the principles of universality and neutrality–in talks held in Geneva with the International Federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as with the American Red Cross.  The founding Chairman of UN Watch, the late Ambassador Morris Abram, was one of eighteen experts appointed by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and charged with finding a favorable resolution.  More recently, this year, UN Watch has continued to engage all major parties concerned with the issue.

This has been a long time coming.  The time has never been riper.  For the sake of international humanitarian law, let us hope that the upcoming conference witnesses the triumph of principle over politics.

UN Watch