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A cross they must continue to bear - whatever the critics say

On the fate of the Red Cross
What is the Red Cross up to? To quote the reaction of one practitioner of the hard-nosed business of advertising yesterday, it is a "simply ludicrous idea" for the organisation whose name and emblem conjures up mankind's nobler side, to consider a change in a logo that would be worth billions were it a car marque, a type of biscuit or brand of cigarettes.

Yet that is what is happening. In terms of instant recognition, the red cross may have been overtaken in these consumer-driven times by the likes of the golden arches of McDonalds, the Mercedes star, and the yellow shell of a certain international oil company. But among the logos of international bodies, only the five rings of the Olympic movement is better known. And in terms of status, prestige, not to mention basic standards of human conduct, the IOC cannot be mentioned in the same breath as the organisation founded in 1863 by a Swiss businessman called Jean Henri Dunant.

In November however, representatives of the Red Cross, its affiliate bodies and the 188 signatory countries of the Geneva Convention whose history is entwined with its own, will gather in Seville. There they will consider whether in certain circumstances to replace the cross and its sister emblem the crescent with another symbol. The modification would be limited. The British Red Cross and other national organisations would continue to use the cross in their own countries, for fundraising and other purposes. In the war zones, however, Red Cross personnel, ambulances and field hospitals would carry a different insignia. Among the currently favoured choices are a red diamond, lozenge, or hexagon on a white background. Not only would a 134-year sub-chapter of the history of warfare end. There could be few more revealing commentaries on our times.

It was in 1859 that Dunant tended the wounded at the battle of Solferino and was appalled by the horrors Italians and Hapsburg Austrians inflicted upon each other. He decided to create a voluntary, neutral and exclusively humanitarian body to alleviate the most dreadful sufferings of war. Thus, four years later, in the country whose very name is synonymous with neutrality, was born the Red Cross. The initial batch of signatories numbered a dozen - among them Britain which seven years later set up a national organisation that today is active in almost 50 countries, with annual charity income of pounds 90m and some 90,000 volunteer workers.

In those earliest days, religion had nothing to do with it. The "Red Cross" was merely the Swiss national flag with its colours reversed. But the formulation was too simple to last. In the Islamic world, a cross evoked not divine mercy but the sectarian imperialism of the Crusades, and by 1876 and the Russo-Turkish war, the Red Cross was operating in Muslim lands as the Red Crescent. A 19th-century version of political correctness? Perhaps. Unarguably, however, in the long run, the mistake would prove as fatal as it was well-intentioned. Henceforth the religious association was irreversible. At first it scarcely mattered. But now the Red Cross itself has paid a gradually increasingly price, to the point where a change of name is a serious, perhaps the only, option.

Elizabeth Twinch was one of the fortunate ones. A Red Cross official taken hostage in Tajikistan early this year, she managed to talk her guerilla captors into releasing her, warning of the damage that would be done to their movement's name if they persisted. But a year earlier, three Swiss Red Cross workers had been killed in Burundi, while in December 1996, six Red Cross workers, five of them women, were shot to death in their beds as they slept in a Red Cross hospital building in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Why were they killed? Perhaps it was Russians seeking to show that Chechen insurgents were simply beyond the pale of human decency, maybe indeed it was muslim Chechens believing the Red Cross was the creature of an imperialist, unholy Russia.

Plainly, though, these are treacherous and increasingly familiar waters. But for all its primitiveness and brutality, Chechnya is a thoroughly modern war - not so much between states as within a state, coloured if not directly caused by religious differences. Gone are the clear-cut 19th- century conflicts between nation states and empires of Dunant's day, replaced by growing evidence that irretrievably religious symbols like cross and crescent add to the hazards of the battlefield.

And there are further complications. Israel, for one, recognises neither the cross nor the crescent, and has its own humanitarian organisation, the Magen David Adom, with its own symbol, the Star of David - which, of course, no one else recognises. If anything indeed, the tendency is for images to proliferate: the Shah of Iran used a red lion and rising sun, before the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini reverted to the Red Crescent. In India, it is said, Red Buddhas have been observed on fields of conflict. But each new symbol only subtracts from the universal value of the Red Cross/Crescent and adds to the planet's already excessive stock of cultural rivalry and division.

And so the adman's axioms may be ignored. As Red Cross officials themselves acknowledge, even a change limited to the war zone would cost a fortune. They would have to drum in, around the world and quite probably in the fiercest heat of combat, a reflex understanding among tank commanders, artillerymen and snipers alike, that sanctuary and mercy are represented not by a cross or a crescent, but by a red diamond, lozenge or some other logo more resembling an international road traffic sign. Almost certainly of course governments would help: who would risk international opprobrium by spurning so noble a cause ?

Inevitably, and rightly, the resistance to change will be massive. As Mike Whitlam, director general of the British Red Cross, put it, "Why do this when we've got the best logo in the world?" He may take comfort that any change is not for tomorrow. The working documents now circulating are but the latest instalment of a debate which first surfaced in the 1970s. A new emblem can only arrive when ratified by all 188 signatories to the Geneva Convention. And if it does, we should blame not the Red Cross. After all, it was not the Red Cross which turned religion into the touchpaper of modern warfare, but ourselves.