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Henry Dunant


Henry Dunant (born Jean-Henri Dunant; 8 May 1828 30 October 1910), also known as Henri Dunant, was a Swiss businessman and social activist, the founder of the Red Cross, and the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The 1864 Geneva Convention was based on Dunant's ideas. In 1901 he received the first Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederic Passy, making Dunant the first Swiss Nobel laureate.

In 1853, Dunant visited Algeria, Tunisia, and Sicily, on assignment with a company devoted to the "colonies of Setif" (Compagnie genevoise des Colonies de Setif). Despite little experience, he successfully fulfilled the assignment. Inspired by the trip, he wrote his first book with the title An Account of the Regency in Tunis (Notice sur la Regence de Tunis), published in 1858.

In 1856, he created a business to operate in foreign colonies, and, after being granted a land concession by French-occupied Algeria, a corn-growing and trading company called the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Djemila Mills (Societe financiere et industrielle des Moulins des Mons-Djemila). However, the land and water rights were not clearly assigned, and the colonial authorities were not especially cooperative. As a result, Dunant decided to appeal directly to French emperor Napoleon III, who was with his army in Lombardy at the time. France was fighting on the side of Piedmont-Sardinia against Austria, who had occupied much of today's Italy. Napoleon's headquarters were located in the small city of Solferino. Dunant wrote a flattering book full of praise for Napoleon III with the intention to present it to the emperor, and then traveled to Solferino to meet with him personally.

Dunant arrived in Solferino on the evening of 24 June 1859, on the same day a battle between the two sides had occurred nearby. Twenty-three thousand wounded, dying and dead remained on the battlefield, and there appeared to be little attempt to provide care. Shocked, Dunant himself took the initiative to organize the civilian population, especially the women and girls, to provide assistance to the injured and sick soldiers. They lacked sufficient materials and supplies, and Dunant himself organized the purchase of needed materials and helped erect makeshift hospitals. He convinced the population to service the wounded without regard to their side in the conflict as per the slogan "Tutti fratelli" (All are brothers) coined by the women of nearby city Castiglione delle Stiviere. He also succeeded in gaining the release of Austrian doctors captured by the French.

Dunant also began to travel through Europe to promote his ideas. His book was largely positively received, and the President of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, jurist Gustave Moynier, made the book and its suggestions the topic of the 9 February 1863 meeting of the organization. Dunant's recommendations were examined and positively assessed by the members. They created a five-person Committee to further pursue the possibility of their implementation and made Dunant one of the members. The others were Moynier, the Swiss army general Henri Dufour, and doctors Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir. Their first meeting on 17 February 1863 is now considered the founding date of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In October 1863, 14 states took part in a meeting in Geneva organized by the committee to discuss the improvement of care for wounded soldiers. Dunant himself, however, was only a protocol leader because of Moynier's efforts to diminish his role. A year later on 22 August 1864, a diplomatic conference organized by the Swiss Parliament led to the signing of the First Geneva Convention by 12 states. Dunant, again, was only in charge of organizing accommodation for the attendees.

Dunant moved to Paris, where he lived in meager conditions. However, he continued to pursue his humanitarian ideas and plans. During the Franco-Prussian War (18701871), he founded the Common Relief Society (Allgemeine Fursorgegesellschaft) and soon after the Common Alliance for Order and Civilization (Allgemeine Allianz fur Ordnung und Zivilisation). He argued for disarmament negotiations and for the erection of an international court to mediate international conflicts. Later he worked for the creation of a world library, an idea which had echoes in future projects such as UNESCO.

In Heiden, he met the young teacher Wilhelm Sonderegger and his wife Susanna; they encouraged him to record his life experiences. Sonderegger's wife founded a branch of the Red Cross in Heiden and in 1890 Dunant became its honorary president. With Sonderegger, Dunant hoped to further promote his ideas, including publishing a new edition of his book. However, their friendship later was strained by Dunant's unjustified accusations that Sonderegger, with Moynier in Geneva, was somehow conspiring against Dunant. Sonderegger died in 1904 at age 42. Despite their strained relationship, Dunant was deeply moved by the unexpected death. Wilhelm and Susanna Sonderegger's admiration for Dunant, felt by both even after Dunant's allegations, was passed on to their children. In 1935, their son Rene published a compilation of letters from Dunant to his father.

In 1897, Rudolf Muller, who was now working as a teacher in Stuttgart, wrote a book about the origins of the Red Cross, altering the official history to stress Dunant's role. The book also contained the text of A Memory of Solferino. Dunant began an exchange of correspondence with Bertha von Suttner and wrote numerous articles and writings. He was especially active in writing about women's rights, and in 1897 facilitated the founding of a "Green Cross" women's organization whose only section was briefly active in Brussels.

Moynier and the International Committee as a whole had also been nominated for the prize. Although Dunant was supported by a broad spectrum in the selection process, he was still a controversial candidate. Some argued that the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention had made war more attractive and imaginable by eliminating some of its suffering. Therefore, Muller, in a letter to the committee, argued that the prize should be divided between Dunant and Passy, who for some time in the debate had been the leading candidate to be the sole recipient of the prize. Muller also suggested that if a prize were to be warranted for Dunant, it should be given immediately because of his advanced age and ill health.

Hans Daae succeeded in placing Dunant's part of the prize money, 104,000 Swiss Francs, in a Norwegian Bank and preventing access by his creditors. Dunant himself never spent any of the money during his lifetime, continuing to live simply and reserving it for bequests in his will to those who cared for him and charitable causes.

According to his wishes, he was buried without ceremony in the Sihlfeld Cemetery in Zurich. In his will, he donated funds to secure a "free bed" in the Heiden nursing home always to be available for a poor citizen of the region and deeded some money to friends and charitable organizations in Norway and Switzerland. The remaining funds went to his creditors partially relieving his debt; his inability to fully erase his debts was a major burden to him until his death.

His birthday, 8 May, is celebrated as the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. The former nursing home in Heiden now houses the Henry Dunant Museum. In Geneva and other places there are numerous streets, squares, and schools named after him. The Henry Dunant Medal, awarded every two years by the standing commission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is its highest decoration.

His life is represented, with some fictional elements, in the film D'homme a hommes (1948), starring Jean-Louis Barrault, and the period of his life when the Red Cross was founded in the international film coproduction Henry Dunant: Red on the Cross (2006). In 2010 the Takarazuka Revue staged a musical based on his time in Solferino and the founding of the Red Cross entitled Dawn at Solferino, or Where has Humanity Gone?.



 

 

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