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The Colombian government should ensure an independent investigation into misuse of the Red Cross emblem by security forces during the rescue of several hostages being held by guerrillas, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 2, 2008, Colombian security forces rescued 15 hostages held for years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

A videotape made public on Monday, August 4, 2008, shows a soldier wearing a vest displaying the Red Cross emblem before the operation started, while the group was taking photographs of team members outside a helicopter, as well as immediately before the rescue operation. In response to images shown earlier of the soldier wearing the emblem during the operation, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe acknowledged the soldier’s use of the emblem, but said he had done so in error and disregarding orders, as a result of his nervousness upon seeing the guerrillas. The new videotape contradicts those claims, suggesting that the Red Cross was deliberately misused from the start, in violation of the laws of war.

“The Colombian government said the hostage rescue operation was carefully planned to the last detail, so it needs to explain why the Red Cross emblem was misused,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions on the protection of victims of internal armed conflicts, to which Colombia is a party, strictly prohibits the use of the Red Cross emblem by combatants. Misuse of the emblem creates confusion between civilians (including relief workers), who are protected from attack, and combatants. It jeopardizes the ability of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to protect and assist civilians during armed conflict, placing not only the ICRC at risk, but also civilians under its protection and other humanitarian workers.

“The misuse of the emblem can make it much harder for humanitarian workers to fulfill their crucial role of protecting civilians, and can even put their lives at risk,” said Vivanco. “It’s very important that an independent investigation be conducted to determine who in the chain of command knew or should have known about the misuse of the emblem.”

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