On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced it had received credible reports that two Libyan Red Crescent ambulances had been shot at in Misrata.

What’s worse, two Red Crescent volunteers were apparently injured in the shooting and one of the ambulances was completely burnt, leaving one less vehicle to transport wounded people to hospitals and clinics.

Since 1864, the international community has formally recognised the importance of protecting medical personnel in times of armed conflict. The original Geneva Convention created an instantly recognisable symbol – a red cross on a white background – to protect medical personnel and facilities like hospitals. However, under the Geneva Conventions medical personnel and facilities are protected from attack regardless of whether they display the emblem.

The red crescent was created just over a decade later and was officially adopted into international law in 1929. It carries exactly the same weight and protection that the red cross does. It tends to be used in countries where the red cross emblem – an inversion of the Swiss flag to recognise the role Switzerland played in the development of the Geneva Conventions – could be seen as a religious symbol instead of a symbol of neutrality.

In 2005 an additional protective emblem – the red crystal – was introduced for situations where the existing emblems might not be perceived as neutral.

Conflict has changed since 1864. One thing that remains the same is the absolute need for healthcare workers to be able to do their jobs safely.

Wounded and sick people have a right to available healthcare, whether they took part in violent clashes or not. Whether they are professional soldiers or not. Whether they are fighting for one’s enemy or not.

Military medical services and humanitarian workers from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement use the emblems to help them save lives. In times of chaotic, violent clashes, the emblems have to be instantly recognised as symbols of neutrality and protection. They must be respected.

Our volunteers and staff go to great lengths to make sure they don’t compromise the emblems.

They take no sides in the conflict and offer assistance based only on need. They carry no weapons, and because of this they could be seen as easy targets.

Yet Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff continue working in some of the most dangerous situations in the world, helping people survive the unthinkable.

The ICRC has called on all those taking part in the violence to respect and protect medical personnel, medical facilities and any vehicle used as an ambulance in all circumstances.

Learn more about the emblems

Find out more about the Geneva Conventions