Immediately following the Colombian military’s July 2 rescue of 15 hostages, President Alvaro Uribe, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, armed forces chief General Freddy Padilla and army chief General Mario Montoya all categorically stated that no emblems of genuine humanitarian organizations had been used in the rescue. But then, video and photo evidence emerged showing that at least one of the four Colombian intelligence agents posing as humanitarian aid workers wore a bib bearing the logo of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Uribe quickly apologized for the misuse of the Red Cross emblem, claiming it was not intentional but resulted from a nervous agent who decided at the last minute to don the bib. However, reports from other sources contradict Uribe’s explanation. The new evidence suggests that the use of the emblem was in fact planned and as such could constitute the commission of a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
After a CNN report nine days after the rescue mission revealed that at least one military intelligence agent had worn a bib bearing the Red Cross emblem, Uribe apologized to the international aid agency and explained, “One of the officers has admitted that when the helicopter was landing at the start of the operation he saw so many guerrillas that he got nervous. He feared for his life and he pulled out a jersey that had the Red Cross symbol and put it over his vest.” No doubt, the Colombian president believed that this simple explanation would defuse the controversy and the issue would simply go away.
But the Colombian president’s explanation seems highly implausible and is contradicted by several other sources. Firstly, Uribe is suggesting that a nervous intelligence officer just happened to have a T-shirt with the Red Cross logo at his disposal at that crucial point in the operation—a highly unlikely scenario, unless such shirts are now part of the military’s equipment regime, which in and of itself would be very disturbing.
Secondly, CNN reported that it had seen video footage and photos that showed one military intelligence agent boarding the helicopter at the start of the mission wearing a Red Cross emblem. This contrasts sharply with Uribe’s explanation that the emblem was only donned when the rescue team arrived at the rendezvous point. It also dispels Uribe’s ludicrous claim that a nervous agent was able to miraculously pull out of nowhere a T-shirt bearing the Red Cross logo.
In a report by Constanza Vieira of the Inter Press Service, the FARC guerrilla in charge of the hostages, César, who was arrested during the operation, cast further doubt on Uribe’s explanation. Interestingly, César’s description of the hostage rescue corresponds closely with that presented by the government immediately following the operation. The only significant difference is that César claims that the four military intelligence agents posing as humanitarian aid workers wore Red Cross insignia.
According to César, the helicopters were white with a red stripe and appeared to be the same as those used in genuine humanitarian missions in January and February. While Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez mediated those hostage releases, the actual missions to pick-up the captives were coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). César then claimed that two of the fake aid workers that emerged from the helicopter wore “Che” Guevara T-shirts with the words “International Red Cross” taped across the stomach. The other two supposed aid workers wore T-shirts that displayed the ICRC logo.
According to César’s lawyer, Rodolfo Ríos, “He could make out the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC logo perfectly clearly.” Ríos then claimed that the FARC guerrilla said, “The International Red Cross symbols gave me confidence,” convincing him that the humanitarian mission was authentic. Apparently, César’s confidence was further boosted by the fact that a fake cameraman who accompanied the operation wore a logo bearing the name of Telesur, the Venezuela-based television network that had broadcast footage of the previous humanitarian hostage release missions.
According to Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), if those who planned the operation “used a humanitarian mission as cover, that is perfidy, and a breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)” under the Geneva Conventions. “It’s like using a white flag of truce to get close to an enemy and then killing him.” Gallón went on to point out that “humanitarian missions are protected, and cannot be used in any way, either for acts of war or for confrontations with the enemy. Their absolute inviolability is the grounds of their credibility.”
On its own, César’s testimony about the use of the Red Cross logo would not constitute a credible rebuttal of Uribe’s explanation. But it is lent credence by the fact that most other aspects of the guerrilla’s description of the rescue operation have been corroborated by other sources. Consequently, César’s testimony in conjunction with the CNN reports and the officially-released video footage of a member of the rescue team wearing the emblem suggest that the Colombian government intentionally impersonated the Red Cross. Uribe only admitted to the rescue team’s use of the Red Cross logo after his government was caught red-handed. It appears that he then lied in his explanation in order to cover up the extent of the war crime perpetrated by his government.
One can only imagine the outcry from both the Uribe administration and the international community that would result from FARC guerrillas disguising themselves as Red Cross workers to penetrate a Colombian prison in order to liberate 15 high-ranking rebel commanders. Is the violation of the Red Cross’s neutrality by the Uribe government any less abhorrent? Is it any less of a war crime?