Israel, Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Yemen, and Colombia: These are just a handful of the more than 110 armed conflicts currently raging around the globe, all of which continue to result in untold suffering. The world is paying intense attention to how these conflicts are being waged, including the treatment of civilians, the destruction of healthcare facilities, and the provision of humanitarian aid. Despite its inherent chaos and destruction, warfare is not a lawless affair. As these conflicts play out, widespread public awareness of how the law preserves humanity during war is arguably more important than ever. That body of law is known as International Humanitarian Law, sometimes referred to as the law of armed conflict or the law of war. These laws are intended to reduce human suffering by offering critical protections to the innocent.
The American Red Cross, as part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, shares in a global effort to inform the public about International Humanitarian Law—a mission which traces its roots to our very origin as a humanitarian movement. In 1859 on a battlefield in northern Italy, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, witnessed war firsthand following the Battle of Solferino where some 300,000 soldiers clashed in a vicious 9-hour battle. To his horror, thousands laying wounded or dying on the battlefield with little to no care. After helping organize civilian aid for the wounded, Dunant was left both shaken and inspired by the experience. Dunant, intent on using the horrors of war to spur change, returned home and wrote about his experiences. His book, A Memory of Solferino, shined a spotlight on the carnage he witnessed, while also making an inspiring call for change. His effort to raise public awareness worked, leading to the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the First Geneva Convention in the 1860s.
An ocean away, Clara Barton faced similar untold suffering as she worked tirelessly to assist those in need during the Civil War. Following the war, she spent years educating fellow Americans about her experiences and the need to address wartime suffering before founding the American Red Cross in 1881. Soon after its founding, Clara Barton made the American ratification of the First Geneva Convention one of the first priorities of the American Red Cross, which it accomplished in 1882.
Today, the American Red Cross proudly continues the legacy of Henry Dunant and Clara Barton through its mission to educate the public about how the law protects humanity during times of war. This mission is anchored in the Geneva Conventions, as well as the Statutes of the Red Cross Movement, which require the American Red Cross and other national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to publicly disseminate the tenants of International Humanitarian Law to the widest possible audience. A public that is better informed of these laws is one that is empowered to resoundingly call for these laws to be respected by all parties to armed conflicts, speaking with a powerful voice capable of effecting change. Indeed, it is this very public knowledge that helps ensure the enduring effectiveness of these laws in reducing suffering and protecting the innocent during times of war.
The American Red Cross International Humanitarian Law Program features more than 2,000 dedicated and diverse volunteers who help spread knowledge and awareness to their friends, classmates, families, and community members. Collectively, this grassroots effort helped educate more than 200,000 Americans about these laws since 2020 alone. From small group conversations to lectures, community engagements, and national webinars, American Red Cross IHL volunteers play an instrumental role in helping educate their fellow Americans.
The American Red Cross offers an array of International Humanitarian Law educational training, which is designed to be accessible to all. This training includes education about the Red Cross Movement, foundational elements of International Humanitarian Law, and more advanced topics. For students and young professionals aged 13 to 24, the International Humanitarian Law Youth Action Campaign is designed to empower youth as they go forth and conduct their own creative and unique dissemination campaigns. Together, these humanitarian changemakers help ensure that International Humanitarian Law remains a powerful force in preserving humanity during our darkest hours.
To learn more about International Humanitarian Law and its vital role in protecting the innocent during armed conflict, as well as volunteer opportunities and educational events, please visit www.redcross.org/ihl.