accessibility & help

Why the principles matter to millions

Henry Dunant, the Swiss businessman who inspired the beginning of the Red Cross Movement

Henry Dunant is one of the most important men you've never heard of. Chief executive Mike Adamson explains why.

I confess before I began my career at the British Red Cross, I too was unfamiliar with his name. But this man has a huge significance for the millions of people we help, and for those who work and volunteer for the Red Cross around the world.

First ever Nobel peace prize

Henry Dunant (pictured) was behind the establishment of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. He also had the original idea for the Geneva Conventions. In honour of these remarkable achievements he was the co-recipient of the first ever Nobel peace prize.

Dunant was a man of principle, in particular the principle of humanity. He died on 30 October, 1910, but his conviction and belief in the power of humanity live on through the fundamental principles that guide the Red Cross Movement to this day.

Witnessing war

In 1859, after witnessing bloody scenes at the battle of Solferino, Italy, Dunant organised local people to help tend to the wounds of some 40,000 injured soldiers, as well as feeding and comforting them.

When he returned home, motivated by all he had witnessed, he called for the creation of national relief societies which could assist those wounded in war, and also pointed the way to the future Geneva Conventions. In 1863, Dunant and four other Geneva men set up the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, later to become the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The emblem of a red cross on a white background, the inverse of the Swiss flag, was also adopted as the distinctive sign of those providing assistance to the wounded on the battlefield. Since then, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has grown into the biggest humanitarian organisation in the world. We operate in 189 countries with millions of members, volunteers and supporters.

In every corner of the globe, staff and volunteers bravely carry out their duties to help others in times of crisis. Every single society and member is united by seven common fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.


Life and death

Listed like this they sound quite abstract, but put into action these principles can make the difference between life and death. They reiterate the Movement's commitment to helping those most in need, regardless of their beliefs or background, never taking sides.

Whether we're taking aid into Syria or teaching first aid in Newcastle, following the principles is a vital part of our work. They're not a marketing gimmick, or just corporate buzzwords - they make sure we can get vital help to people in crisis.

A flash of hope

Around the world, whenever a humanitarian crisis occurs, the Red Cross or Red Crescent is always one of the first organisations on the ground.

When we watch the news and see images of conflict, disaster and despair, the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblems are always present in the background, a flash of hope, signifying those assisting and comforting the wounded and sick, and bringing life-saving relief.

Today, the challenges posed by an unpredictable and often volatile global landscape have never been greater. But our principles still ring true.

They still resonate in a world of noise and desperation. They still guide us through adversity. They still command respect. They still make us unique.

Protection at all costs

We recognise that we are only able to work in conflict zones like Yemen, Syria and South Sudan because we are neutral, impartial and independent and because the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem takes no notice of political, ethnic or religious affiliations.

This is why it is imperative that we celebrate the principles and make as much noise as possible on why they matter. I want to celebrate the life of Henry Dunant, celebrate over 150 years of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and celebrate 50 years of the fundamental principles.

For me, and everyone whose lives have been touched by the Red Cross and Red Crescent, they are something that must be protected at all costs. They allow our staff and volunteers to do the incredible work they do and to reach as many people as possible who need our help.

Principles in action

Our Principles in action project explores how the fundamental principles help the Red Cross across the world. Using real-life examples the project shows how the principles help staff and volunteers gain access to, and help, people in need. You can download the project's in-depth reports from the right-hand-side of this page.