July 17th, 2008
12:32 PM ET

Colombia rescue: If you can't trust the Red Cross, then what?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/17/art.redcross.jpg caption="A side by side comparison of the footage during the rescue and the official Red Cross logo show the similarities."]
Karl Penhaul
CNN Correspondent

We met our source thinking he was going to try and sell us some video filmed inside a Colombian guerrilla camp.

For a price, we thought we could get a scoop showing 15 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American military contractors, in the week prior to their rescue.

A Colombian military intelligence team had plucked the captives from under FARC guerrilla noses in an ingenious operation on July 2. News of the rescue and the harrowing experiences of the hostages, some of whom had been held for more than 10 years, was still big international news.

But the material was not as advertised. Instead of documenting the final days of the hostages, it documented the final days of the military's preparation for the rescue mission.

But the video did turn out to be valuable - because it put an end questions over whether the Colombian military used the Red Cross symbol to fool the rebels.

The government and Colombia’s top generals had said all along that their ruse to deceive the guerrillas into handing over their hostages involved intelligence officers posing as bogus aid workers. But they categorically denied real humanitarian emblems had been used.

But in photos our source was now showing us, one of the intelligence officers had in fact used a bib bearing the Red Cross emblem and logo of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

So what you ask? Hadn’t the mission been a rip-roaring success? Weren’t 15 long-suffering hostages now back home with their loved ones?

Well according to international legal experts CNN consulted it was against the international rules of war – known as the Geneva Conventions – for a military operation to misuse the Red Cross emblem in this way. In fact, the head of the International Bar Association, suggested might be a war crime under the conventions.

You see all is not fair in war. There are rules and regulations about how you can and can’t kill and maim in combat. A lot of the rules are aimed at protecting lives, especially civilians.

In this particular case, the logic was that if warring sides disguise themselves as Red Cross workers then not only could bona fide Red Cross workers run the risk of being targeted by the combatants but they may also be unable to tend to the civilian victims of war.

Now to cut a long blog short – the Colombian media ran with the CNN story too and around midday Wednesday President Alvaro Uribe did an about face.

He stepped up to the plate and acknowledged one of the intelligence officers on the rescue raid had been wearing an ICRC bib – just as CNN had seen on the photos.

Damage limitation or a frank admission and apology? Well, maybe just another detail of a covert operation where we’ll likely never know the full story.

But it got me thinking on another track. As this was going on in Colombia two blood enemies in the Middle East were swapping prisoners and dead fighters.

That’s why Colombia’s guerrillas started taking hostages and prisoners in the first place - to try and force the government into an exchange deal. But in over a decade, the Colombian government has not been willing to engage in swaps like the one Israel and Hezbollah did Wednesday.

With 15 Colombian and American hostages now home free, some will say the ends justifies the means, no matter what the Geneva Conventions say.

But it seems obvious to me that you don’t need to worry about the rules if you're not engaged in the deadly game of war.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Karl Penhaul
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Alex

    Perhaps the Red Cross should not have been displayed in this rescue operation. But the ruse worked and people lives were saved. Sometimes, daring operations require daring actions. It occurs to me that there was much more trickery involved in this operations than merely the display of the Red Cross by one individual during the operation. Not a shot was fired and nobody was injured, except perhaps the ego of the guardians of the Red Cross. Your objection has been noted. My hats still off to the Columbian government and all the members of that unit for a successful life saving operation regardless of what you had to do to achieve its success!

    July 18, 2008 at 1:32 am |
  2. Dasun

    Yes, this is a half success. Ingrid Betancourt, I heared her story many years ago. She was in captivity I think nearly decade(and other hostages also). So, when we heared this rescue mission it was very big story to us. But after that media revealed truth behind mission, it may be sometime nightmare to people really involved as aidworkers. Because, still most of aidworkers have possible chance to approach to rebels(except Muslim exreemist) and they can help poor hostages. So ultiimately this will worst case senario future. And I think military people should stop using this sought of logos future.

    July 17, 2008 at 11:55 pm |
  3. James Dylan

    This wasn't the first time or the last time a military posed as aid workers. And rightly so. What kind of aid worker would say," keep these people hostage so my job is easier? I would rather ease the pain of all those in captivity than see any freed." An aid worker with a poor sense of the goal is who. Someone who doesn't realize their goal is to not have a job instead of an easy one.

    July 17, 2008 at 11:54 pm |
  4. Greg S

    Dumb idea, regardless of the potential benefits. This incident could now be cited by any party who wants to abuse IRC workers, or impede their efforts in bringing relief to the needy.

    To those who say the ends justifies the means, I'm assuming you would support a government who would invade a sovereign nation, using dubious reports of WMD's if the potential outcome would be $1.00 a gallon fuel ??.. Oh and if we lose 4K + members of our military, suffer thousands more injured... Oh well.. we have $1.00 gas...
    Oh – wait a miute, we didn't get the cheap gas !.. Oops, our bad.

    At a certain point, the means IS the end.

    July 17, 2008 at 11:44 pm |
  5. Ruby Coria, LA. CA.

    I don't know about this one.. I know it all went well & at times you gotta do what you gotta do.., BUT! this was the wrong way, so wrong they should go back- kidding!, but it was wrong.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:10 pm |
  6. Michelle Fonthill Ont,Canada

    I agree that it was a risk posing the Red Cross workers as cerlgy but it got them rescued and safley back home . They are risking thier lives to help and deserve all the credit.

    July 17, 2008 at 3:22 pm |
  7. Veronica

    I totally agree.
    Geneva Conventions exist for a reason. And that was a very stupid mistake.

    What is the price of this?
    Probably, as you well underlined, this will start attitudes of suspicion towards the Red Cross in conflict zones, preventing them to help the population, stopping their access to POW to see how they are being treated, and putting the lives of the Red Cross personnel in danger.

    I do believe that decisions should be taken considering the long run implications. Not only the short-term results.
    Unfortunately, I believe that this whole mission was not set up for the benefit of the hostages, but as usually happens, but in the benefit of the politicians in the government.
    And of course, in democracies, the "carrott" for a politician is being elected or re-elected. This is a clear example of shortsightedness.

    Thanks for your great post.

    July 17, 2008 at 2:55 pm |
  8. Kim in NY

    I am glad the 15 hostages are home, but this is bigger than 15 people. To say "the ends justify the means," shows a true lack of understanding of the issue. This isn't over. 15 families are happy now, but how many thousands of aid workers are a risk. That's right up there with posing as clergy.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:41 pm |
  9. M. Thomas Howard

    I respect the role of the Red Cross as a neutral party. I believe that the rule against its use is important to protecting the lives of those who help out on behalf of neither party.

    However, the hostages in this case were being kept in a jungle for years. They were abused, neglected, and starved in violation of international law. Additionally the FARC is not recognized as a legitimate group or one that acknowledges or respects international law in the first place.

    Had a helicopter landed, and the individuals dressed as Red Cross workers opened fire, then I would say this might be a violation of international law. However, the only thing the Colombian military did in this case, is rescue individuals who should not have been held captive in the first place. This means that combatants still have no justification to believe that the Red Cross logo would be used for offensive purposes and must still respect its integrity.

    On the other hand, the FARC in Colombia may be more hesitant to allow Red Cross workers to see hostages. While a downside, the lives of fifteen individuals were saved from a group which already has an abominable record of human rights violations.

    I think it was completely legitimate, and a well-executed plan to save the lives of many innocent people. Kudos to the Colombian military for the operation.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:32 pm |
  10. Cindy

    I don't care what he had on honestly. They rescued the hostages successfully is all that matters to me. I wouldn't care if he had on the Pope's robe as long as he did his job!


    July 17, 2008 at 1:05 pm |