International Red Cross May End
Discrimination Against Israel

By Colin Rubenstein


The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, (ICRC) may, after 50 years, have finally found a formula to admit Israel’s Magen David Adom (MDA) society as a member following meetings held in Geneva on April 13 and 14. At these meetings both representatives of both Israel and the US reluctantly accepted an ICRC plan whereby by the end of the year, the ICRC members would adopt a new neutral symbol of humanitarian aid in addition to the religiously significant red cross and red crescent, probably a red diamond. Israel’s Magen David Adom would then be able to become an ICRC member if it framed its traditional red star of David symbol in the red diamond.

For fifty years, the International Red Cross has refused to admit Israel’s MDA even though it meets all other criteria for membership, on the grounds that it does not use one of the approved symbols. The Israeli society has used a red six pointed Star of David, the Magen David, since the 1930s.

Officially, the stance of the Red Cross has been that no society can use any symbol but three symbols recognized under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and the Red Lion and Sun, which was formerly used by Iran, and that to add more symbols would only lead to confusion about what symbols protect humanitarian aid workers. However, it is clear this excuse does not really hold water. When Muslim states refused to recognize the Red Cross for religious reasons, the Red Cross recognized the Red Crescent and the Red Lion and Sun Societies, and these were included in the 1929 and 1949 Geneva Conventions.

As Dr Bernadine Healy, the President of the American Red Cross, has recently written, "The ICRC’s feared proliferation of symbols is a pitiful fig leaf". A recent editorial in the Washington Post was even more blunt, calling it "sheer hypocrisy."

The Geneva agreement has been the result in part of a strong stand taken by the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross’s Ambassador at Large, former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, at Geneva proposed a solution previously supported by several legal experts inside and outside the Red Cross movement, "grandfathering," which would have had the added bonus of resolving any problems of symbol proliferation. Without changing the Red Cross statutes or protocols, the movement could simply have recognized the basic principle of international law that new institutional arrangements do not invalidate existing rights and arrangements. Thus, since the Israeli society had already begun using the Red Star of David, and Israel had signed the Geneva conventions before the 1949 version of these treaties said that only the recognized symbols could be used, the MDA should have the ongoing right to make continued use of its existing symbol. Furthermore, no symbol which had not already been in use in 1949 would need to be recognized.

Additionally, the American Red Cross, which has frequently protested over the discriminatory exclusion of the MDA decided to delay payment of its dues to support the federation’s headquarters budget unless the April meeting took concrete action to bring the MDA into the organization.

Australia’s Red Cross has been generally supportive of the admission of the MDA, but is not following its American counterpart in threatening to withhold dues and did not support grandfathering.

With the solution agreed on in Geneva, there is more reason than ever today to hope that the problem of ICRC discrimination against the MDA may finally be drawing to a close. Yet there is still reason for scepticism, as the universal symbol idea has been raised before without results.

As early as the negotiations of the 1949 Geneva Convention, the excuse used for not including the Red Star of David as a recognized symbol was that the ICRC was seeking to find a new single neutral symbol for all humanitarian first aid agencies. This idea has been repeatedly invoked over the past fifty years, most recently at the October 1999 Conference of the ICRC. Moreover, the decision of the ICRC will still have to be ratified at a full session of the 188 countries of the Red Cross movement, and, in the past, it has been clear that many nations voted against proposals to allow MDA membership because of political hostility to Israel. It is not clear that this opposition has been overcome even today.

A spokesperson for the American Red Cross said his movement still harbors "serious doubts" that the process begun in Geneva will succeed by the end of the year as promised. And he said the American Red Cross still expects ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger to honor a promise he made to the US Administration last year that the MDA would be admitted to the ICRC by the end of 2000, regardless of the outcome of the current "universal symbol" process, if necessary through invoking a ‘safety net’ proposal in the form of ‘grandfathering’ or an ‘exceptional waiver’ as proposed by a previous working group. If Kellenberger’s promise is not kept, discrimination against the MDA will continue to be a blight on what should be a universally respected humanitarian organization.


Source: The Review of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), (May 2000)