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How you (and your smartphone) can protect lives

A new app from Red Cross helps you to protect the emblems that protect lives in armed conflicts.

Monday May 9, 2016

Photo: ICRC

You see it almost every day, but do you know what it really means?

During times of war, a red cross (or crescent or crystal) on a white background means 'Don't shoot. We are not part of the fight, and are here to render assistance to anyone who needs it.'

Aid worker Ruth Jebb relies on the red cross emblem to protect her as she treats people wounded in conflict zones like Darfur. The Queensland-based nurse has witnessed how the presence of the iconic red-on-white emblem gives her access to the sick and injured.

"There were examples of conflicts completely stopping so we could get on with the business of what we were there to do," she recalls. "As soon as people on the ground see that emblem, as soon as they see us coming, it means hope for them."

During conflict, personnel and facilities bearing the red cross, red crystal and red crescent emblems are afforded protection under the Geneva Conventions.

Despite this, hundreds of Ruth's fellow Red Cross and Red Crescent workers have been injured or killed in recent years. One reason is that the emblem's wartime significance is diluted through unauthorised use by businesses and advertisers.

In Australia, the emblem must not be used without first obtaining the written permission of the Minister for Defence, and penalties may apply under Commonwealth law. Australian Red Cross's international humanitarian law (IHL) team is responsible for monitoring emblem misuse and receives numerous reports weekly, ranging from the emblem appearing on business advertising, clothing, toys, even 'naughty nurse' fancy dress outfits. Most misuse is inadvertent.

Dr Blake and the Bloody Cross

When George Adams, producer of the ABC drama series The Doctor Blake Mysteries, incorporated a 'bloody' version of the emblem into the advertising of the program, it was intended as a nod towards the title character's history as an army medic. It wasn't until they were contacted by Red Cross that they learned of the emblem's wider and still-active significance.

"Everyone recognised it was an honest mistake and certainly wasn't in the spirit of the show," says George. "We were genuinely horrified that we had in any way put the Red Cross in such a situation where the emblem could be denigrated or belittled."

"People and businesses can be very surprised when they find out - many assume the red cross is a trademark or a logo," says Yvette Zegenhagen of Australian Red Cross. "Our new Emblem app not only helps us seek out and respond to misuses quickly, but also increases awareness of the emblem's significance.

"We're hoping to get the message out there that these emblems should only be used for one purpose, and that everyone knows and respects that purpose. If we want them to be respected in times of conflict, they must be widely understood and protected in times of peace."

The Emblem app in action. Photo: Australian Red Cross.

Using The Emblem app

The Emblem app enables the user to take a photo of a potential emblem misuse and send it to Red Cross. If the report is shown to be valid, Red Cross contacts the party responsible and works with them to remove the misuse from circulation, or modify it to lessen its resemblance to the emblem to the point where it is in compliance with Australian law.

Following consultation with the team, George replaced the red cross emblem in the Doctor Blake designs with a bloody fingerprint - a change which, he realised, better served the themes of a murder mystery program.

"We were very happy with the editorial outcome of it," he says of the new design, which will continue to be featured in the show's upcoming seasons. "And I think the Red Cross gave us what you'd expect from the Red Cross - a certain amount of understanding and leniency in the face of a genuine mistake, which allowed us to fix it."

"We were very happy with the editorial outcome of it." When the ABC TV drama series The Doctor Blake Mysteries inadvertently featured a red cross emblem in its advertising, Red Cross collaborated with the program's producers to help modify the design. Photo: December Media

Yvette is calling on Red Cross supporters to download and use the app.

"We're here to notify, inform and assist - we're not the 'emblem police'," she says. "Red Cross is tasked by the Minister for Defence to follow up any misuse, and help work out a viable solution.

"This quite literally ensures lives are saved, and for that we are very grateful."
Ruth Jebb agrees. "I think the app is a really valuable tool for an issue that's becoming more and more of a problem. I'm really proud to work for the Red Cross, and I try to promote that respect in the field by doing the best that I can do and being as professional as I can be.

"But it's everybody's job to make sure that respect is maintained."

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