TODAY is a special day.
It is the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day and I join Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and 11.7 million active volunteers to commemorate the birthday of Henry Dunant, born today in 1828 in Geneva, Switzerland. It is his vision that led to the creation of the world's largest humanitarian network, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as well as the birth of the first Geneva Convention in 1864, laying the foundation of modern international humanitarian law (IHL) to protect lives and human dignity in times of conflict.
Dunant was a businessman whose life changed dramatically after witnessing the aftermath of battle at Solferino, a town in northern Italy, on 24 June 1859. Travelling for business, he witnessed first-hand, a field strewn with over 6,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. He decided he had to stay and help, alongside local women volunteers. Three days and three nights they toiled, trying to care for those wounded and dying. They treated everyone equally, regardless of what side they had fought on.
Dunant's experience not only changed him but inspired him to create a neutral, impartial organization that will protect and assist war wounded. This was the beginning of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This also sparked the creation of voluntary relief societies to care for the injured, which then evolved into red cross and red crescent societies worldwide, including the Malaysian Red Crescent, which dates back to 1948 when it was established as a branch of the British Red Cross.
Alongside this, Dunant proposed that an international principle be created to serve as the basis for these societies, an idea that developed into the Geneva Conventions, the main treaties that formed IHL. Although IHL is a law applicable in times of conflict, its underlying principle of IHL - the respect for lives and human dignity - is beyond conflict. It is universal and timeless!
He then made it his life's mission to try to assist and protect people in times of conflict and crisis. In 1901, he was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize. Now, 160 years since the battle at Solferino, Dunant's legacy lives on in the millions of Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers who strive to do their best to help others around the world each day.
So today, like we do every year on the 8th May - we stand together and we celebrate humanity, humanitarian action and men and women that toil daily to help others. This is what the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Geneva Conventions are all about.
The 1864 Geneva Convention and three subsequent Geneva Conventions became the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 that are universally accepted by all countries in the world. They are rules that seek to preserve humanity amidst war.
As for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which was born from Dunant's idea, is a global humanitarian network with 11.6 million active volunteers and 450,000 staff that help those facing disaster, conflict and health and social problems. It is a big family with three components members - the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the 191 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Each national society is independent and yet they are united by the same seven fundamental principles - humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.
Worth noting, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies including Malaysian Red Crescent are neither government institutions nor non-governmental organization (NGOs). They are auxiliaries to the government to provide a variety of humanitarian services, both in situations of peace and war, contribute to public health and social services and support the development of their countries.
Today, more people than ever are in need of humanitarian assistance - a colossal 120 million globally depend on aid just to survive as a result of violence and conflict. Yemen, Syria and South Sudan are synonymous with suffering. A collective effort of diverse players in the humanitarian sector is needed to protect people from the worst effects of conflict.
Conflicts today evolve quickly, spread across geographic boundaries and millions of women, men and children around the world are paying the heavy price. They are suffering the immediate impact - death, injury, displacement - as well as often the invisible effects of psychological trauma, sexual violence, the loss of missing family members.
Today, wars are fought by or with a different parties, not just between militaries or states. Conflicts today are sometimes influenced, sponsored and manipulated by people often beyond the boundaries of the affected states' territory. Battles are fought in populated areas, risking thousands of civilian lives and destroying critical infrastructure. In these situations, neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action is desperately needed so that help can reach those most in need.
Yet in many places across the world, the space for impartial humanitarian action is under threat. Human dignity is often disregarded, the applicability of the law is questioned, humanitarian aid is politicized and deliberately hijacked for political gain or the control of populations. Attacks, indiscriminate by nature, often go directly against notions of proportionality, precaution and distinction, which are at the core of behaviour in combat. Neutral and impartial humanitarian action moreover is hindered by elaborate sanctions and measures states enforce for their own security.
In all this, the international community fiercely defends and protects principled humanitarian action, to help ensure access is granted so that basic humanitarian needs of the communities affected are met. Calls resound for increased respect of the law and ensure that civilians are protected in hostilities and basic principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality are respected. It is also imperative that the safety of humanitarian workers is assured and they are allowed to deliver assistance in an impartial, neutral and independent manner.
So, today - World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, not only do we remember how Dunant, as a bystander, selflessly helped the dying and wounded, but we also commemorate the millions of humanitarian workers who continue to do this daily.
Let us acknowledge and celebrate the dedication of humanitarian workers and volunteers worldwide who provide quick, effective, much needed service to those in lesser circumstances, facing crises be it conflict, violence or natural hazards.
Today, I ask that we all stop, take a moment to reflect on how we can do our part - how we can apply principles of humanity in our daily lives, to help others when they are in need! We can make a difference in someone's life if we take to heart the need to respect lives and dignity when someone is in distress, anxiety, sorrow or pain.
Today is a special day.
It is the day to celebrate humanity and love!
#love #RedCrossDay #RedCrescentDay
* Jacqueline R. Fernandez is the Head of Communications and Public Affairs for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)'s regional delegation in Kuala Lumpur, a humanitarian organization that has been helping people around the world affected by armed conflict and other violence for over 150 years.