GENEVA – An attempt to end Israel’s long isolation from the Red Cross humanitarian movement hit a snag Tuesday as Muslim opponents used procedural moves to block progress at a decisive international conference, delegates said.
The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which opened Tuesday and is expected to conclude Wednesday, is being asked to approve changes to meet Israeli demands of almost six decades that it be granted full membership without using the cross or crescent to identify itself.
But Red Cross officials hosting the conference confirmed that the meeting’s validity had been challenged. They declined to identify the delegation that filed the motion because the session was being held behind closed doors.
“At the moment we’ve hit a rock, so things have ground to a halt,” said Ian Piper, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
He said there was no doubt about the meeting’s validity, but said the objection slowed down proceedings because it forced organizers to consult on a response.
The conference is focusing on the addition of an optional, third emblem – a blank, red-bordered square standing on one corner – that could stand alone or frame the Red Shield of David of Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue society.
The emblem – dubbed the “red crystal” – was approved over Muslim objections in a hard-fought diplomatic conference last December. But that was only the first step, and the conference was called to complete the job.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said the conference aimed to make the humanitarian movement truly universal.
“All the relevant parties, and I’m thinking in particular of the national Israeli and Palestinian societies, will finally be able to participate actively in its decisions,” Calmy-Rey said. “They will be able to respond to the growing humanitarian needs in the region in an even more effective and coordinated way.”
The simple red cross on a white background – the reversal of colors of the Swiss flag – was adopted as the emblem of the movement when it was founded in 1863 after Swiss humanitarian Henry Dunant was horrified by the carnage and unattended casualties he saw during a one-day battle between Austrian and Franco-Sardinian forces on June 24, 1859, at Solferino, Italy.
But the symbol unintentionally reminded Muslims of the Christian Crusaders, and they insisted on their own red crescent in the 19th century.
When Israel’s society bid for membership in 1949, it objected to using either the cross or crescent and the Red Cross movement refused to admit yet another emblem.
The society has been campaigning for years to find a way out of the stalemate.
While there has been some interest outside the Middle East in the new emblem, it was designed primarily to meet Israel’s objections. Magen David Adom can combine it with the red star to create a new logo.
Israel’s military will be able to use the crystal by itself on a white flag as an emblem protecting medics and other humanitarian workers helping war casualties.
Eritrea is considering using the crystal to contain both the cross and crescent if its society joins the movement. Some Europeans have weighed using it temporarily in areas where the cross or crescent alone may be unwelcome.
But any society could combine the emblem with the cross or crescent – or both – for temporary use.
The crystal was initially approved in December by the diplomatic conference of the 192 nations that have signed the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war. Now the crystal must be accepted by the full movement, which also includes the international bodies of the Red Cross and the 183 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.
Besides welcoming the Israeli society, the conference also is being asked to admit the Palestine Red Crescent, which signed an agreement with Magen David Adom to allow each other’s paramedics to operate freely. Ordinarily societies have to be associated with a sovereign state, which isn’t the case for the Palestinians. But international officials want an exception so both sides can be treated equally.
Switzerland, which has been monitoring the situation at the two sides’ request, “is encouraged by the good cooperation that has developed between Magen David Adom and the Palestinian Red Crescent.”