The Red Cross, a strictly neutral and impartial worldwide organization dedicated to humanitarian interests in general and to alleviating human suffering in particular, is composed of three basic elements.

  1. The self-governing National Red Cross Societies, including the Red Crescent (in Muslim countries) and the Red Lion and Sun (in Iran), operate on the national level through their volunteer members, although they also participate in international work. Each must be recognized by the International Committee. Today numbering 114, these societies all have Junior Red Cross Societies as well. Virtually all have disaster relief programs, and many carry on welfare programs, with community health and safety instruction, and so on. Since World War II, many of the European and Asian societies have also established refugee services.

  2. The League of Red Cross Societies, a coordinating world federation of these societies, was established in 1919 as the result of proposals made by Henry P. Davison (1867-1922) of the American Red Cross. The League maintains contacts between the societies; acts as a clearinghouse for information; assists the societies in setting up new programs and in improving or expanding old ones; coordinates international disaster operations. It functions under an executive committee and a board of governors on which every national society has representation.

  3. The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC], a private, independent group of Swiss citizens chosen by co-optation (limited to twenty-five in number), acts during war or conflict whenever intervention by a neutral body is necessary, such action constituting its special field of activity. As guardian of the Geneva Conventions and of Red Cross principles, it promotes their acceptance by governments, suggests their revision, works for further development of international humanitarian law, and recognizes new Red Cross Societies; it sends its Swiss delegates into prisoner-of-war camps, supervises repatriation, operates the Central Tracing Agency, supplies material relief, and the like.

The International Red Cross Conference, which met for the first time in 1867, is the highest legislative body. It is composed of representatives of the National Societies, the League, the International Committee, and the governments that have signed the Geneva Conventions. Meeting every four to six years, it reviews Red Cross activities and the operation of the Conventions in practice, taking under consideration, whenever necessary, any suggested revision of the Conventions or the adoption of new ones. (Actual revision and adoption are matters for a diplomatic conference convened by the Swiss government in its role as the custodian of the Conventions; texts submitted to such a diplomatic conference would be prepared by the ICRC with expert assistance and previously approved by an International Conference of the Red Cross.) Between Conferences, coordination of the work of the League with that of the Committee is ensured by the Standing Commission of the International Red Cross.