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The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an impartial, neutral and independent organization created in 1863 to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to promote the laws that protect victims of war. It is the founding member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement). Its mandate stems essentially from the Geneva Conventions, the Statutes and resolutions of the Movement and those of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Civil message service at the Central Agency for
Prisoners of War, Geneva, during the WWII.
© ICRC Photo library

The ICRC headquarters is located in Geneva, Switzerland, and the organization has a staff of more than 12,000 in 80 countries around the globe. One of its main roles is to support and coordinate the activities of the Family Links Network to help people who have become separated from their families or are without news of them following conflicts or in other situations of humanitarian need.

The ICRC’s Mission

The ICRC is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance. The ICRC also endeavours to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles. Established in 1863, the ICRC is at the origin of the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It directs and coordinates the international activities conducted by the Movement in armed conflicts and other situations of violence.

The ICRC’s role in Restoring Family Links

The ICRC is responsible for ensuring the operation of the Central Tracing Agency (CTA) as provided for in the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC also has the lead role within the Movement with regard to helping people separated from their families or without news of them following conflicts and other situations of violence, natural or man-made disasters, or migration as well as in other situations of humanitarian need. It works together with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and coordinates their international work in this field. This work is referred to as Restoring Family Links.

Through its delegations, the ICRC carries out direct action to help separated families whenever required and possible. An extensive, long-term field presence and close cooperation with National Societies place the ICRC in close proximity to individuals and populations.

The CTA acts as coordinator and technical adviser to National Societies and governments. It decides what action is to be taken in situations of armed conflict or other situations of violence in order to restore family links. It ensures coherence within the Family Links Network and provides methods and guidelines for National Societies. It also establishes working practices for tracing services and helps strengthen the Restoring Family Links capacities of National Societies through training seminars and meetings arranged to share knowledge and experience.

Origins of the ICRC

Henry Dunant, a Swiss citizen, witnessed the suffering caused by the battle of Solferino in 1859, when tens of thousands of wounded soldiers were left without adequate medical care. He enlisted the support of the local people and took care of the wounded. Then, in his famous book “A Memory of Solferino” (1862), he expressed two main ideas: an international treaty that would oblige armies to care for all wounded soldiers and the creation of national relief societies that would help the military medical services.

Dunant’s efforts led to the creation of a committee of Swiss citizens that persuaded the Swiss government to organize a diplomatic conference, which adopted the first Geneva Convention in 1864. It established rules to protect wounded soldiers and medical personnel and led to the creation of relief societies in each country. These bodies became known as National Red Cross Societies, referring to the universal emblem adopted to identify and protect medical units. The Red Crescent emblem with the same purpose was first used in 1876 and was officially recognized in 1929. The ICRC thus initiated the whole International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and established the basis of modern humanitarian law.

The ICRC's mandate

As custodian of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC's role is to work for the application of international humanitarian law, to disseminate knowledge thereof and to work for its further development. The ICRC has a permanent mandate under international law to visit prisoners, organize relief operations, reunite separated families and undertake other humanitarian activities during armed conflicts.

The ICRC also works to meet the needs of internally displaced persons, address the dangers and consequences of mines and explosive remnants of war and search for people who have gone missing during conflicts and other situations of violence. In these activities, the ICRC works closely with National Societies and when necessary it contributes to build their capacities.

Since its foundation, the ICRC has played a major humanitarian role in most conflicts around the world. It has continuously worked to persuade States to expand the legal protection of war victims, in order to limit their suffering.

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