Law Note - New Humanitarian Symbol: The Red Crystal 


Fall 2008 - (InBrief Winter 2008/2009)

InBrief Winter 2008/2009

A new symbol has been added to the list of marks in the Trade-marks Act (Canada) which businesses are prohibited from using as trade-marks in Canada.

The list of "prohibited marks" set out in section 9 of the Trade-marks Act include certain marks, including the Red Crystal, given significance by virtue of the Geneva Conventions (the "Convention"), the treaties designed to set standards for international law for humanitarian concerns.

Such prohibited marks include the international distinctive sign of civil defence (an equilateral blue triangle on an orange ground), as well as the emblem of the Red Cross on a white ground, officially recognized in 1863 following the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and used by the Canadian Red Cross Society.

The Red Cross emblem (the inverse of the flag of Switzerland, a traditionally neutral state) was adopted as a non-partisan symbol and was intended to be the only such distinctive mark symbolizing the neutral status and the protection granted by international humanitarian law to armed forces' medical services and volunteers belonging to relief societies for wounded military personnel. However, the religious connotations of the cross as a symbol of Christianity led to issues of acceptance of the symbol in war zones in non-Christian regions. Accordingly, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Red Crescent and the Red Lion and Sun were used instead by some countries and relief societies. All three symbols were eventually recognized by the Convention.

The officially recognized humanitarian relief "Red" symbols created difficulties for the International Committee of the Red Cross as the emblems are sometimes perceived as having particular religious or political connotations which, in turn, undermined the precept that neutrality and impartiality are the cornerstone principles of the movement. Some countries and relief societies were slow to (or simply refused) to adopt any of the three Red emblems officially recognized by the Convention as being unsuitable.

In a bid to address these concerns and to avoid territorialism by establishing a symbol that is intended to be devoid of any political, religious or other connotation, the Convention has been amended to adopt an additional distinctive emblem; namely, the Red Crystal.

The amendment to the Convention provides that the Red Crystal can be used in two ways, namely in its pure form as a protective device (i.e., a visible sign of protection conferred by the Convention), or as an indicative device to show that a person is linked to the International Humanitarian Relief Movement. When used as an indicative device, the Red Crystal may be used in association with (or may have incorporated into the centre of the Red Crystal) any or all of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, the Red Lion and Sun or the Red Star of David (although that symbol is not otherwise officially recognized by the Convention).

The Red Crystal is not required to be used by any country or humanitarian society, but is required to be given equivalent treatment and protection by states adhering to the Convention. Consequently, Canada's Trade-marks Act has been amended, to include the Red Crystal as a prohibited mark.

As a result, businesses are prohibited from adopting or using as a trade-mark or otherwise, any mark which consists of or is likely to be mistaken for the Red Crystal. This is a point which should be considered when a business is in the process of choosing a new trade-mark for goods and services or considering a brand expansion of an existing trade-mark resembling the Red Crystal or other prohibited mark.

This Law Note
appeared in the Lang Michener LLP InBrief Winter 2008/2009.