International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2016 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


Henry Dunant, Swiss

Henry Dunant

By: James G. Apple,  Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor

Henry Dunant was the founder of one of the most important and durable charitable organizations in the world – the Red Cross. The genesis of the idea of a humanitarian organization that would relieve suffering and provide food, shelter and clothing to those persons injured in battle or in disasters, was war – specifically a fierce battle fought in late June, 1859 between a French army commanded by Napoleon III stationed in Italy and a military force led by Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, which was occupying parts of northern Italy. The battle was known as the Battle of Solferino, considered one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th Century. It resulted in over 34,000 wounded and dead soldiers spread out across the battlefield.

Arriving in Solferino in the evening of June 24, 1859, after the battle was over, Dunant had an opportunity to view the aftermath of the battle, where no person or group was present to offer care for the thousands of wounded men. He organized civilians in the town , including women and children, to help care for these soldiers. Under his direction the local civilians were able to secure food and supplies for the casualties, and erected temporary hospitals. This experience set Dunant on a path of humanitarianism that eventually earned him the first Nobel Peace Prize.

Henry Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland on May 8, 1828, the son of a religious family with strong Calvinist beliefs. Both of his parents engaged in social work, assisting orphans, the poor and the sick. When he was 18 years old he and friends founded an association with friends dedicated to Bible study and helping the poor. He also founded the Geneva chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association. He attended secondary school in Geneva but had very poor grades and did not complete his studies. He worked in a bank before traveling to Algeria for a trading company where he was employed. He eventually left the company to go into the trading business for himself in French occupied Algeria. He needed assistance, wrote a “flattering book full of praise for Napoleon III” and planned to present it personally to the French emperor, whose headquarters were located in Solferino. He traveled there in the early summer of 1859. He was 31 years old.

Dunant arrived in the town the evening after the battle, and completely shocked by what he saw, began organizing an assistance program. He returned to Geneva in July of that year and wrote a book about his experiences in Selferino, entitled A Memory of Selferino, which he had published in 1862 with his own funds. It was during this period of writing, editing and publishing the book that he conceived of the idea of a “neutral organization” that would “exist to provide care to wounded soldiers.” In it he described “the battle, its costs, and the chaotic circumstances thereafter.”

The immediate result of the book and his travels in Europe to promote it was attention by a lawyer named Gustave Moynier, then President of the Geneva Society


of Public Welfare. This organization backed Dunant’s ideas and recommendations and created a five-person Committee in February, 1863. The first meeting of this committee met on February 17 of that year, and it is “now considered the founding date of the International Committee of the Red Cross.”

Dunant continued to travel and promote his ideas, but had conflicts with Gustave Moynier about development plans for the new organization. However Dunant was successful in his promotional efforts, and on August 24, 1864 “a diplomatic conference organized by the Swiss Parliament led to the signing of the First Geneva Convention by 12 nations.

Following this success, however, Dunant’s fortunes declined. He was forced into bankruptcy, which led to scandal about his handling of financial affairs of his company. He was ultimately forced to resign from the Red Cross Committee. He was Also expelled from the YMCA and finally left Geneva in March, 1867, never to return. Moving to Paris, he continued his advocacy humanitarian ideas, and “argued for disarmament negotiations and for the creation of an international court to mediate international conflicts.” During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) he founded the Common Relief Society and the Common Alliance for Order and Civilization.

Neglecting his personal finances, Dunant sank deeper into poverty. He eventually moved to a Swiss resort town, Heiden where he eventually lived in a hospital and nursing home. His acquaintance with a young Heiden teacher led to his writing another book about his life’s experiences. In 1895 he met with a German newspaper editor who wrote an article about “the found of the Red Cross, which appeared in a German magazine and was later republished in other European countries.  This led to recognition of his accomplishments, the awarding of a prize, and an opportunity to write articles, which he did, one of which dealt with women’s rights.

In 1901, the renewed interest and attention to Dunant’s humanitarian efforts throughout his life resulted in a singular honor, he became the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The final years of Dunant’s life were spent suffering from depression and paranoia. He rejected religion and attacked Calvinism. He died on October 30, 1910. His last words were “Where has humanity gone?” perhaps reflecting a bitterness over the way he was treated in later life.

He is buried in a cemetery in Zurich, Switzerland. His birthday, May 8, is celebrated as International Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. The second highest peak in Switzerland, Dunantspitze, was named after him by the Swiss president on October 6, 2014.

(Note: Rule 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: The parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction, subject to their right of control.)

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© 2016 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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