The emblem of a red cross with arms of equal length on a white background is the visible sign of protection under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. As such, it is the emblem of the armed forces’ medical services and its use is controlled by governments.
The British Red Cross is authorised by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence to use the emblem within specified limits. In return for this permission, we help monitor unauthorised use or misuse (whether deliberate or inadvertent) of the red cross emblem and similar symbols throughout the UK.
Many people are unaware of the true meaning of the emblem and its importance. It is first and foremost a symbol of neutral protection in wartime. To be effective, it must be understood and completely trusted.
In many countries with a predominantly Muslim population, the red crescent emblem is used instead.
Neither emblem has any religious or political significance.
Origin of the emblems
The red cross emblem is an inversion of the Swiss flag, which shows a white cross on a red background. This recognises the historic connection between Switzerland and the original Geneva Convention of 1864.
But while the red cross emblem has no intentional religious meaning, the symbol reminded soldiers from the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) of the crusaders of the Middle Ages and so in 1876 they began using a red crescent instead.
More about our religious neutrality
Both emblems have two purposes:
- to protect sick and wounded victims of war, and those authorised to care for them
- to indicate that the person or object on which the emblem is displayed is connected with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
To fulfil these purposes, the emblems must be trusted absolutely to signify neutrality and protection. That is why their unauthorised use is forbidden in international and national law. The names “Red Cross” and “Red Crescent” have the same legal protection.
If you suspect misuse of one of the emblems/names, or of similar designs/wording, please fill in the report misuse of the emblems form and the matter will be investigated.
An additional emblem
An additional protective emblem – the red crystal – was established in 2005. It has equal status and meaning to the red cross and red crescent emblems.
Nations adopted the red crystal emblem to increase protection for authorised personnel in situations where the existing emblems would not be respected and to promote the universality of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Restricted use of the emblems
Each country is required to regulate the use of all the protective emblems and names. In the UK, the British Red Cross is the only civilian organisation authorised by the government to use the red cross emblem and name. Their unauthorised use may be a criminal offence under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 (as amended).
For further information, please contact Michael Meyer, head of international law at the British Red Cross, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read about the Geneva Conventions
Find out about our fundamental principles