|By Christian Jennings
For the seven Burundian soldiers, the fire instructions and target designation were simple. The ambush party lay in the tall elephant grass at the side of the road in northern Burundi’s Cibitoke Province. They were waiting for two white Toyota Land Cruisers, clearly marked on the hood, side panels, roof, and rear doors with the internationally recognized emblem of a red cross on a white background.
The attack on two vehicles from the ICRC on June 4, 1996, on the road between the Burundian villages of Rugombo and Mugina, was one of the most blatant contemporary violations of the symbol of the Red Cross. Subsequent investigations both by journalists present in Cibitoke that day and by the ICRC have established that the Swiss delegates were targeted specifically.
Article 38 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949 establishes the red cross on a white background as the emblem of the medical services of the armed forces. All permanent medical personnel or chaplains are required to wear it, as a waterproof armband on the left arm, and are entitled to display the flag. It is also the emblem of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the National Societies, the ICRC, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Their personnel can use the symbol at all times.
The Red Cross “is the emblem of the Convention, and therefore an emblem of protection. It allows its bearers to venture onto the battlefield to carry out their humanitarian tasks,” the ICRC said in its Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 1977. The nature of the symbol as a “protective emblem” means that an attack on vehicles and individuals carrying that emblem is a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime.
The protection applies as well in internal conflicts. Additional Protocol II of 1977, which governs internal armed conflict, specifies in Article 12 that the “distinctive emblem shall be respected in all circumstances.”
All indications were that the Burundian military specifically targeted the two ICRC vehicles because of the nature of their humanitarian activities in the country: at the time of the incident, the ICRC was the only humanitarian organization working in Cibitoke. Its staff was consequently witness to massive abuses of the civilian population by both the Tutsi military and Hutu rebels, including mass killings, forced displacement and rape. Also, as the army claimed, “they were feeding the rebels.”
The incident raises doubt whether the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem provides any form of protection to its bearer in the complex ethnic and national conflicts that have proliferated on the African continent. The characteristic of such conflicts is a multiplicity of factions, dominated by militias or warlords who show no respect for international humanitarian law. Incidents of abuse of the emblem abound. An ICRC transport plane was fired on in Zaire in 1996 as it brought in a mobile hospital to Uvira. One antiaircraft round actually hit the center of the Red Cross emblem on the fuselage. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Tutsis were on occasion dragged from Red Cross ambulances and slaughtered by Hutu extremists.
A different but equally serious war crime is the abuse of the Red Cross emblem. The Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols state that the emblem “may not be employed” except to protect medical units and establishments, and using it to deceive someone into thinking he is safe and then attacking or capturing him constitutes “perfidious use” and is a grave breach if it is intentional and causes the death of or serious injury to an adversary. Transporting weapons in a vehicle marked with a Red Cross is thus a grave breach. In Kosovo in June 1998, refugees fleeing to Albania reported that Serb forces fired at them from helicopters bearing Red Cross markings, also a grave breach.
The ICRC is still struggling over how to address another abuse: when an International Red Cross society takes a lead role in committing war crimes, particularly unrecognized national societies. During the war in Bosnia, Ljiljana Karadzic, the wife of political leader Radovan Karadzic, who has been indicted for genocide, ran the Bosnian Serb Red Cross. That organization— unrecognized by the ICRC—was involved in the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs and ran at least one concentration camp, at Trnoplje, near Prijedor, where internees were killed, tortured, and raped.
The Red Cross emblem has aroused controversy for almost as long as it has been around. First adopted in the 1864 Geneva Convention, the red cross on a white background was formally described in the 1949 Geneva Conventions as intended to be a “compliment to Switzerland,” formed by reversing the Swiss federal colors: a white cross on a red background. Turkey, asserting that Muslim soldiers found the cross offensive, unilaterally began using a red crescent in 1876, and this was accepted in the 1929 update of the Geneva Convention along with the now unused “red lion and sun” for Iran. Israel sought approval of the red shield of David, a six-pointed star, at the 1949 Conference that produced the current Geneva Conventions. ICRC officials feared it would lead to a flood of new national and religious symbols and already had requests for recognition of the red flame, shrine, bow, palm, wheel, trident, cedar, and mosque. One delegate suggested a red heart. All such proposals were rejected for fear that abandoning a universally recognized symbol would endanger human lives. The ICRC did not officially recognize societies that used unauthorized symbols: from the red shield of David to the green cross of the Cruz Verde, a renegade national society set up in El Salvador in 1980.
However in December 2005 a diplomatic conference of signatory countries to the Geneva Conventions formally adopted a 3rd Additional Protocol approving the adoption of a new Red Crystal emblem. The emblem was chosen for its neutrality—it has no national, religious or cultural connotations, although national societies can incorporate existing symbols within the Crystal’s center. Following the adoption of the Red Crystal, the Israeli national society, the Magen David Adom, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society were recognized by the ICRC and admitted into the International Federation.
The ICRC withdrew its expatriate staff from Burundi after the killing of its delegates in 1996. The Burundian military led an inquiry into the ambush, and immediately blamed Hutu extremists. Those who allegedly took part in the ambush say that the Burundian military officer who led the official inquiry also set up the ambush. After long discussions with the Burundian government, the ICRC resumed operations in the country in 1999.