The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is probably more complex than you think it is. As the name implies, it is not a single organization, but rather two international umbrella entities that coordinate the efforts of about 188 national organizations that mainly operate within their native country, but can and often do band together to combat human suffering no matter its form and regardless of the victims' nationality, race, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, religious beliefs, class, allegiance, or political opinions. The movement's activities are protected under international law to the point where violence against any person with a Red Cross, Red Crescent, or Red Crystal on their armband or misusing their symbols are war crimes.
The three parts of the Movement are:
- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): Founded in 1863 as a war relief and aid society for soldiers wounded in battle. Prior to this, there was no well-organized response for soldiers left wounded on battlefields, so an international conference drafted rules for protecting both the soldiers themselves and the medical personnel the Red Cross would soon be sending out to battlefields across the world to aid anyone in need of help, no matter their allegiance. Soon, this society would inspire similar organizations to pop up in countries all over the world. The similar goals and aspirations of these organizations, often named Red Cross societies, led to the need for coordination, which led to...
- The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC): Founded in 1919 by the Red Cross Societies of Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States to coordinate existing Societies and encourage the foundation of new ones. It had a bit of a rocky start because it explicitly excluded the Societies of the former Central Powers that had just been defeated in World War I, but today it merely sets the conditions that must be met in order for a nation to have its own internationally recognized...
- National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: These are the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that most civilians are likely to have contact with; the Societies which do the actual groundwork in relieving hardship caused by man-made and natural disasters the world over. There are currently about 188 societies, with names that reflect their national origin, such as the American Red Cross, the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, and the Magen David Adom (the Israeli Society, which uses the Red Crystalnote in conjunction with the Red Star of David).
- The Red Crystal is chosen as a distinctive but religiously and ethnically neutral symbol. Important in this age of inter-religious/ethnic conflict where flying an obviously religious symbol around questionably trained and twitchy militants can be a very dicey proposition. In other words, the Arab nations couldn't put up with the symbol the Israeli Red Cross used, which was a red Star of David, so as Muslim countries preferred the Red Crescent, the Israelis decided to go with the Red Crystal.
- Iran used the Red Lion and Sun symbol until 1980, when the Islamic Republic replaced it with the Red Crescent.
The activities of the three branches can be summarized thus: the Committee monitors war zones to determine the needs of the affected populace and detect war crimes and helps organize the response. The Federation coordinates the response of its member Societies on an international level and encourages the foundation of new Societies where they do not yet exist. The National Societies gather and disperse resources according to national and international need.
Also, the symbols, while humanitarian in nature, do have some religious symbolism. The Red Cross is used in most societies, including predominantly Buddhist or otherwise non-Christian ones, as well as the expected largely Christian west. The Red Crescent tends to be primarily in Muslim religion-oriented countriesnote , and originated from protests by the Ottoman Empire, which took offense to the supposed Christian symbolism, and the Red Crystal came about because of the Israeli Red Cross using a red star of David, and Muslim countries not liking the idea of allowing that as a symbol. Members of The Red Cross, particularly the Canadian Red Cross, have been highly protective of any potential infringement of the Red Cross symbol, leading people and companies to seek alternative symbols for medical treatment and emergency equipment; examples including the adoption of the medical caduceus for health in video games, the green cross on first aid kits, and the Star of Life on American ambulances.