Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross

Date / Period
Vienna, Austria
Object Type
International Humanitarianism and Presence

At the 1965 international conference of the Red Cross in Vienna, the 580 representatives from 92 National Societies and 84 countries proclaimed the seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross. These principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality helped strengthen the ties between different national Red Cross societies, and they stood out at a time of troubled international relations and domestic unrest in many countries. 

The principles also reflected a need to clearly declare the organization’s core ideas. Neutrality and humanitarianism were imprinted on the Red Cross from the start, being codified in the First Geneva Convention of 1863. In the decades that followed, the Red Cross articulated other principles, including impartiality and independence in 1921, in the aftermath of the First World War. After the Second World War a set of so-called “Oxford Principles” were accepted, and in 1955 a further array of fundamental and guiding principles were formulated. As the movement’s centennial approached, a need was felt for a simpler and more impactful declaration, and this is what was embraced in 1965. The International Review of the Red Cross said of the principles that year: “The movement thus possesses a universal doctrine, a humanitarian basis common to all peoples.”

“The movement thus possesses a universal doctrine, a humanitarian basis common to all peoples.”

Reaffirmed at the 1986 conference in Geneva, the fundamental principles have served the Red Cross well. They act as external markers of a truly humanitarian movement, and are useful for introducing people to the Red Cross, and attracting volunteers. 

One recent study drawing evidence from nine National Societies and from the international level, has found that the principles “are not just abstract concepts” but “tools” that are “practically applied in today’s diverse contexts.” The first four principles shape the disaster relief and preparedness policies of a number of non-profit and intergovernmental institutions, such as the United Nations. The meaning of the principles translate well into different cultures, and they are useful not only for conflict situations, but in all difficult situations where access and acceptance are threatened. 

Amelia B. Kyazze, Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser at the British Red Cross, states: “For a Movement largely based on the delivery of services by millions of volunteers, all seven of the Fundamental Principles work together in concert and cannot be used as effectively in isolation.”

Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross

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