The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it faces unprecedented challenges in the complex age of modern warfare as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.
These include “new weapons [and] new types of actors coming into conflict”, ICRC chief Peter Maurer said.
The world’s oldest aid organization recently warned it was unable to cope with the “catastrophic” humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The movement currently employs 13,000 people working in 92 countries.
The movement was founded by a Geneva businessman, Henri Dunant, in 1863 in response to the suffering of injured soldiers abandoned on the battlefield of Solferino in northern Italy.
Horrified by what he saw, he documented the slaughter in his book, A Memory of Solferino, and decided to create an organization dedicated to helping war wounded.
Today, the ICRC, together with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, has become a worldwide movement with tens of thousands of workers and volunteers.
In addition to delivering aid, the organization also aims to ensure that the rules of war are respected in conflict zones, and has a responsibility for looking after the rights of prisoners of war.
But the organization now faces challenges not foreseen in the original Geneva conventions.
At Solferino, there was just one civilian casualty, whereas nowadays it is estimated civilians make up more than 90% of war victims.
Warfare in the 21st Century is complex and chaotic, in part because of new weapons such as drones, conflicts – like that in Syria – with multiple armed groups, and shifting frontlines, said Peter Maurer.
“We see conflicts when one convoy has to overcome 35 roadblocks before the convoy gets to areas where food and medicine can be distributed,” he added.
Last November, the ICRC issued a warning over Syria’s escalating humanitarian crisis.
The constantly moving nature of the conflict meant it could not plan, but instead had to seize opportunities for aid delivery on a day-to-day basis, the organization said.
As a result, relief workers were unable to access certain parts of the country.
Despite its strong reputation, the record of the ICRC is not perfect.
Its policy of confidentiality led it to keep silent about Nazi concentration camps in WW2.
Confronted by widespread criticism, the organization was later forced to issue an apology. It said it had feared that speaking out would jeopardize its access to allied prisoners.
Red Cross: Key dates
- 17 February 1863: Launch of the International Committee for Relief to Wounded Soldiers, later to become the International Committee of the Red Cross.
- 26-29 October 1863: Creation of National Societies and adoption of the red cross as a protective emblem
- 22 August 1864: The original Geneva Convention is adopted to protect the sick and wounded in armies in the field. Paves the way for the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
- 27 July 1929: Red crescent is officially recognized as a protective emblem.