Sixty-first General Assembly: Sixth Committee (Legal)

The Sixth Committee, which deals with international legal matters confronting the 192 Member States of the United Nations, has helped give birth to judicial bodies like the International Criminal Court. Following the recommendations of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, the objective of strengthening the rule of law was at the top of the Committee's agenda in 2006. Delegates offered views on how to ensure that treaties are ratified and how the peaceful settlement of disputes is promoted. They also debated the possibilities for a legal regime to handle incidents that occur in one country but affect another, such as oil spills or pollution. Hungary's representative said his country was particularly interested in addressing the issue of transboundary harm and that 95 per cent of the surface water of the Danube River section that flows through Hungary comes from neighbouring countries. In addition, progress was difficult on the draft comprehensive convention on international terrorism, with some delegations debating whether to associate certain language like "army" with terrorism, while others considered that armed forces are not terrorists by definition.

A New Symbol of Protection and Neutrality

It is about who a sniper can kill and who he must spare. It is about which building can legally be reduced to rubble and which one is protected under law, or which vehicle can be blown up and which must be allowed to drive on. Since 1864, the symbol of a red cross has protected military and civilian medical services from being targeted during armed conflicts, while from 1876 the red crescent has fulfilled the same function for medical services in Muslim countries. Both symbols are also used to identify the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the International Federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The three emblems of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

In 2006, delegates to the sixty-first session of the General Assembly voiced their views on a new symbol that will stand alongside the two emblems: a red crystal. The Sixth Committee took note of the issue when it adopted a resolution on the Status of the Protocols additional to the 1949 Geneva Convention. "The crystal, crescent and cross all have the same meaning", Cristina Pellandini, deputy head of the ICRC delegation to the United Nations, told the UN Chronicle. "Their purpose is to make combatants aware that those people, buildings and vehicles with the symbols are protected under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and should not be fired upon", she said.

ICRC was the result of the efforts of Henry Dunant, a Swiss citizen who was horrified by the misery he witnessed of more than 45,000 abandoned, dead or wounded soldiers in Solferino, Italy in 1859. The symbol of a red cross on a white background, representing the inverse of the Swiss flag, was recognized in the First Geneva Convention of 1864, with the aim to facilitate relief efforts for wounded combatants. Believing the cross to be offensive to Muslim soldiers, the Ottoman Empire was the first to use the red crescent from 1876 to 1878 as Turkey fought Russia -- the symbol was formally recognized in 1929.

At a 1949 diplomatic conference, Israel called for the use of the red star of David by its armed forces' medical services, but fearing a proliferation of protective emblems, States rejected the proposal. The debate about the issue continued for 46 years as a growing number of States recognized the need for an additional emblem devoid of any national, political or religious connotation. In a diplomatic conference in December 2005, Member States adopted the Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, creating the red crystal as a possibile symbol for national relief societies unwilling or unable to use the red cross or red crescent. Ms. Pellandini said that besides the relief society in Israel, others like the one in Eritrea -- a country with significant Christian and Muslim communities -- are also considering using the red crystal as a neutral symbol for its medical services and national society. Unfortunately, the issue became highly politicized, she added, with some States objecting to the new emblem's creation. Although many parties had hoped to adopt the Third Protocol by consensus, some Islamic States voted against its adoption, while others abstained.

The 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in June 2006 in Geneva amended the Movement's statutes to incorporate the new emblem. As a result, Israel's National Society -- Magen David Adom -- and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society were formally recognized and admitted as full-fledged members of the ICRC. Magen David Adom was unable previously to enter the Movement as it did not use the cross or the crescent, while the Palestinian Red Crescent Society could not join because member societies must come from internationally recognized independent States. Prior to the 2005 diplomatic conference, both organizations had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on how they would carry out their respective operations, particularly in the autonomous and Occupied Palestinian Territories.

According to Jerzy Makarowski of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations, who led the negotiations on the draft resolution, although the red crystal was a contentious issue, talks remained "productive, constructive and friendly". The text contained a very neutral reference to the Third Protocol, simply noting in its preamble that it had been adopted, and that "a more positive reference would have been very difficult", he said. Namira Negm of Egypt told the UN Chronicle that her country was concerned that the guidelines set in the MOU were not being respected and that international humanitarian law was often violated in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Although the resolution was adopted by consensus by the Committee, it only noted the adoption of the additional emblem, but did not express support for it, she said.

For Daniel Meron, Director of the International Organizations and Human Rights Department of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the recognition of the red crystal emblem gave the opportunity of "being able to join the club [the Movement]", and that Magen David Adom would now be able to participate in international relief efforts. Although he had been disappointed by the politicization of the issue at the 29th International Conference, Mr. Meron said that the resolution's adoption was a welcome development to "get political backing" for the red crystal. Meirav Eilon Shahar of the Permanent Mission of Israel said that although bringing the additional emblem before the United Nations had no direct legal bearing on the issue, it represented an opportunity to "encourage countries to recognize the red crystal and ratify the Third Protocol".