Colombia Misused Red Cross Symbol in Betancourt Rescue

Colombia soldiers misused sacred symbol in Betancourt rescueThe daring rescue of Ingrid Betancourt from FARC terrorists misused the Red Cross symbol in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

A member of the military mission that tricked Colombian rebels into freeing 15 hostages wore the insignia of the International Red Cross during the operation, President Alvaro Uribe said Wednesday.

Mr. Uribe said his government had apologized to the Red Cross for the incident, which he called an unauthorized error by a nervous soldier. “An officer mistakenly and contrary to orders … put a piece of cloth on his vest that carried the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Mr. Uribe said in a speech in Bogota.

A fleeting image of a portion of the cloth is visible in video taken of the operation by an agent posing as a cameraman that was officially released.

Use of the Red Cross symbol in such a military operation would appear to violate the Geneva Conventions that protect the relief organization’s reputation for neutrality in conflicts.

There’s no “appear” to it.

One hesitates to overstate matters given the stakes involved.  The rescue of these hostages is an unmitigated good.   Further, I believe Uribe when he says it was done contrary to orders.

Still, this is a serious matter.   Having soldiers pose as relief workers or journalists is illegal because, otherwise, no one would recognize the sanctity of those people and they would be in danger.  Using the Red Cross is particularly egregious because it could deny captured soldiers and their families the benefits of visits to ensure humane treatment.

Recall Clara Barton’s words from 1878:

The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention. What It Is written and published by Clara Barton in 1878:A confederation of Relief Societies in different countries, acting under the Geneva Convention, carries on its work under the sign of the Red Cross. The aim of these societies is to ameliorate the condition of wounded soldiers in the armies in campaign on land or sea, and to furnish relief in cases of great national calamity.

The societies had their rise in the conviction of certain philanthropic men, that the official sanitary service in wars is usually insufficient, and that the charity of the people, which at such times exhibits itself munificently, should be organized for the best possible utilization. An International Public Conference was called at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1863, which, though it had not an official character, brought together representatives from a number of governments. At this conference a treaty was drawn up, afterwards remodeled and improved, which twenty-five governments have signed.

The treaty provides for the neutrality of all sanitary supplies, ambulances, surgeons, nurses, attendants, and the sick or wounded men, and their safe conduct, when they bear the sign of the organization, viz: the Red Cross.

This only works if people trust that only legitimate relief workers seek sanctuary behind the Red Cross symbol.

Woodrow Wilson Red Cross Poster:  Sparacus Education:  Red Cross

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Actually, it only works if both sides are playing by the same set of rules. If only one side is playing by those rules, it just becomes an advantage to the other side. Isn’t there something in the geneva convention about not chaining prisoners neck to walls also?

  2. Anderson says:

    YAJ, that’s not the point.

    The point is that some Red Cross workers who otherwise would’ve lived, will end up being dead after too many incidents like this, because bad guys who otherwise would’ve trusted them, won’t.

    Bad guys are indeed bad, hence the name, but bad is not always a synonym for utterly depraved. Even bad guys typically like babies and candy and neutral third parties who minister to the wounded. (Al Qaeda is one of a few exceptions, I’m sure, but not everyone bad is al Qaeda.)

  3. fredw says:

    What’s the big deal; the Geneva Conventions are “quaint and outdated” (Alberto Gonzales US Attn Gen) , remember. The important thing was rescuing the hostages, we’ll worry about the ramifications in the future, in the future.

  4. John425 says:

    I’m ready to believe that the Red Cross sanctity is an anachronism. Today’s warfare is against those to whom the sign of the Cross is anathema and the wearing of one only invites additional violence against the wearer.

  5. This all reminds me of the James Bond novel and book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In both, Bond employs the help of the head of the Union Corse(Marc Ange Draco) and his men to attack Blofeld’s HQ in Switzerland. They do it by impersonating a Red Cross flight.(In the movie they were supposed to be bringing supplies to Italian flood relief victims)

    While flying there, the Swiss air force(Does neutral Switzerland really have an AF?) sends up fighters as ATC tells the helicopters to land. No flight plan had been followed. Draco, unphased by all this blarneys his way on to the target. By telling ATC and the fighters he is carrying passengers.

    “You’re carrying passengers?”

    “Of course I’m carrying passengers, distinguished representatives of the World Press.”

    The planes and ATC then leave Draco and Bond’s flight alone

  6. William d'Inger says:

    The answer is simple. Hold an open and honest trial in the full glare of a free press, and if the miscreant is guilty, give him/her a stiff penalty. That way, both the good guys and the bad guys will know where Columbia stands on the issue.

  7. rpk says:

    I would be much more concerned if I had seen the same concern over the years when certain misunderstood Muslim groups routinely used ambulances to move men and supplies, posted fake photos of Israel bombed ambulances, and generally violated all conventions on the treatment of prisoners. As noted above, when only one side is complying it is a disadvantage to the side that follows the “rules”.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Is rescuing civilian hostages a military mission even though military personnel are used? Perhaps it is a law enforcement action. Are law enforcement actions covered under the Geneva Conventions? No shots were fired and the rebels were not harassed in any way so it seems it was only a rescue mission. Thoughts?

  9. Fersboo says:

    I agree with Yetanotherjohn, if one side is abusing the rule set, than it would only seem right that the other side be allowed to disregard the rules.

    As to RC workers or press being killed because of this incident or incidents similar, maybe they should stop letting their organizations be used by groups like FARC, HAMAS, AQII, etc. etc. ad nauseum.