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How to say 'Don't Shoot' in all the world's languages

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 23 May 2016

May has been Red Cross Emblem Awareness Month. The Red Cross is one of the world's world most distinctive emblems – up there with Coca Cola and the golden M of McDonald's.

It seems ironical, therefore, that there have to be periodic campaigns to explain what is so special about the Red Cross emblem.

One immediate difference between Australian Red Cross and major corporations is that the Australian Red Cross – albeit one of the largest humanitarian organizations in Australia – does not have a large advertising budget to keep reminding people about the special status of the emblem.


Second, major business corporations have teams of lawyers to monitor constantly any misuse of the trade marked logos. The Red Cross emblem enjoys special protection under international law and its Australian equivalent. But Australian Red Cross does not employ (again given its financial limitations) a large team of lawyers just to check on the emblem's misuse.

The Red Cross emblem says "don't shoot". Where the emblem is displayed (on a person, site, vehicle or equipment) it means that this person or item is not part of the fight – and is instead providing impartial assistance.

The Red Cross is not only one of the world's most recognized emblems, it is also one of the oldest. It began in 1864 with the first Geneva conference on the laws of armed conflict.

There is some doubt over how the emblem was created. A common idea is that the emblem is the reverse of the Swiss flag (a white cross on a red background).

The cross has no religious significance. But in 1876 the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) objected to it and so there is the equally valid Red Crescent emblem. (Therefore there is often reference to Red Crescent Societies working in some countries).

Yet another change occurred a decade ago with the creation of the third emblem: the Red Crystal. This has been invented to cater for situations where neither a cross nor crescent is acceptable. This is now the third neutral emblem of protection.


Emblem awareness campaigns are necessary both to explain the special significance of the emblem and to warn that the misuse of the emblem is a criminal offence (under the Commonwealth's Geneva Conventions Act 1957).

The emblem has been a victim of its own success. It is thought of internationally as a symbol for good health. Therefore, medical centres and computer repair businesses, among others, have adopted it to show that they too are in the good health business.

But this use is illegal. The law is very clear and it is the responsibility of the Minister of Defence to enforce it.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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