Thursday, April 19, 2007

“Whether through wounds, capture or shipwreck”

My feature story on the Philippine National Red Cross’ 60th year that came out last Monday did not have its accompanying sidebar because of space constraints. It was Manny Pacquiao day, you see, and with his new triumph, the boxing champ made good “blaze of glory” promise that would momentarily dazzle the nation.

Not that we are wanting in inspirational blazes and sparks nowadays. There are many out there, emanating from the lives of unknown, unsung and unseen heroes. Many of these are Red Cross volunteers who have put their lives on the line in order to help and save others.

I have many interesting reading materials on the Red Cross’ work in the Philippines and around the world but I have yet to see or read one that is exclusively on the human drama many Red Cross volunteers have been part of. I wish stories on this would be compiled and published to inspire the young. Something like the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation’s “Great Men and Women of Asia” books that feature the lives and times of special individuals who made an impact on communities. The light they had created had turned into a blaze that stunned the darkness.

I have the thick history of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) as well as a beautiful coffee-table that tells the Red Cross story through vintage images and essays, from its beginnings before the American occupation up to the recent years. I also have the must-read “Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949” which every journalist who goes into a war zone should first read. I’ve had my old copy for many years. I got a new one recently.

Here are some must-know:

After a frenzied battle in Solferino in northern Italy in 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss, came upon a bloody scene where French and Italian troops on one side, and Austrians on the other, were killing one another. Imagine 400,000 dead and dying without medical care, fair game for looters and predators.

Army medics could not do their work because they could not be distinguished through a sign that would be easily identified by warring parties. They were themselves fair game.

From that battlefield Dunant picked up the bloody seed of what is now known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the mother of the Red Cross and Crescent Societies all over the world. Dunant, along with Guillaume-Henri Dufour, Gustave Moynier, Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir founded the ICRC. Their work earned them the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

In 1863 an international assembly met in Geneva to find means to remedy the lack of medical services in the war zones. It adopted a red cross on a white background as the distinctive sign to be used by relief services for wounded combatants. This would later be adopted by National Red Cross and Crescent Societies.

In 1864, the red cross on a white background was officially adopted by the first Geneva Convention and was officially recognized as the distinctive sign of the medical services of armed forces.

During the 1876 Russo-Turkish war that was fought in the Balkans, the Ottoman empire preferred to use the red crescent (the crescent being an Islamic symbol) on a white background instead of a red cross. The red cross, by the way, was not related to the Christian cross whose vertical part is longer than the horizontal part. The symmetrical red cross is more like the cross of the Swiss flag.

Egypt also chose to use the red crescent while Persia (now Iran) chose a red lion and sun on a white background. These states made their reservations to the conventions and their signs were then written into the 1929 convention. (The Islamic Republic of Iran would give up the red lion and sun and adopt the red crescent in 1980.)

Article 38 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 confirmed the red cross, the red crescent and the red lion and sun on a white background as the protective signs of the medical services of government armed forces. Only these and no other signs or emblems would be recognized.

In 1982, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies adopted as its emblem the red cross and red crescent on a white background. In times of conflict, it is the visible sign of protection conferred by the Geneva Conventions.

During international conflicts, the ICRC bases its work on the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocol I of 1977. These treaties lay down the ICRC’s right to carry out activities such as bringing relief to wounded, sick or shipwrecked military personnel, visiting prisoners of war, aiding civilians and, in general terms, ensuring that those protected by humanitarian law are treated accordingly.

During non-international armed conflicts, the ICRC bases its work on Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II Article 3 recognizes the ICRC’s right to offer its services to warring parties with a view to engaging in relief action and visiting people detained in connection with the conflict.

I remember Protocol II being invoked by political detainees during the martial law years.

The Geneva Conventions is the bedrock of international humanitarian law. The fundamental international agreements are inspired by respect for human dignity. They establish “the principle of disinterested aid to all victims of war without discrimination—to all those who, whether through wounds, capture or shipwreck, are no longer enemies but merely suffering and defenseless human beings.”

In this age of terrorism, the battle lines have blurred. The battlefield could be anywhere.