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Colombia crosses on red

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21 July 2008 13:37

Guest blogger: Toby Collis is a Lowy Institute intern and Macquarie U. law student.

The Sunday Times described it as a 'masterpiece of theatrical fraud' when the Colombian military did the seemingly impossible by removing hostages, including poster-child Ingrid Betancourt, from the jungles of the Guavieare Province in Columbia. 

But it has come to light that one Colombian soldier wore the emblem of the Red Cross on his uniform to deceive the rebels. Under the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention, the unauthorised use of the symbol of the Red Cross against an adversary, called ‘perfidy’, is illegal. The purpose of this rule is to prevent the misuse of the symbol, which would otherwise undermine the neutrality of the Red Cross. In response to these revelations, Rafael Nieto, a political commentator and former justice minister of Colombia, argued that the actions were legal insofar as the mission had humanitarian and not military objectives.

The Red Cross plays an invaluable role in conflict situations around the world. It has earned a unique level of trust in the global community. Preserving the integrity of its symbols must outweigh the short term gain arising out of misusing its symbols for humanitarian objectives. 

Columbia’s official response was that a ‘nervous’ soldier acted against orders to display the symbol. But taken in the context of the admitted tactic of posing as NGOs to rescue the hostages, we must question whether this was an honest mistake or an official strategy.

It is a sad day when a government risks the image and safety of not only a respected international organization, but other NGO groups that are performing necessary roles in stabilising the region (see Euan McDonald’s blog piece for another interesting take on this).

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