On July 15, CNN revealed that one of the Colombian Army commandos participating in “OperaciÃ³n Jaque” – the July 2 military operation that bloodlessly rescued 15 FARC hostages on July 2 – had worn an emblem of the International Red Cross. This is a violation of international humanitarian law; it complicates the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in conflict zones, since combatants in future humanitarian operations may suspect ICRC representatives’ authenticity.
On July 16 Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe said the following about the incident:
After press reports about the supposed appearance of an International Red Cross emblem, an internal investigation was ordered. …
The result of that investigation was that an official, in error and contrary to given orders, acknowledged that due to his nervousness, upon observing the number of armed guerrillas around the helicopter, he put over his vest a piece of cloth that bore the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
This officer, upon confessing his error to the high command, has said that when the helicopter was about to land, he saw such a quantity of guerrillas, that he became so very nervous, that he feared for his life and so he took out the piece of cloth with the International Committee of the Red Cross symbols, which he had in his pocket, and he put it over his vest.
We regret that this occurred.
It turns out that either President Uribe was misinformed, or he was lying, or the soldier got the jitters far earlier than previously thought. Yesterday Colombia’s RCN television network broadcast a video (excerpted here on the website of Semana magazine), recorded by the Colombian Army, showing more details of the preparations for OperaciÃ³n Jaque. The video shows clearly that one of the disguised Colombian commandos is wearing the Red Cross emblem on his chest even before the operation began, as the participants gathered around posing for photos.
It is now obvious that the Red Cross emblem’s use was no accident in defiance of orders. The rescuers posed as members of a false humanitarian NGO, as reporters from the Telesur and Ecuavisa networks, and – as is now plain – as a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
This morning, the Colombian Presidency put out a terse communiquÃ© implying – though certainly not saying clearly – that the Colombian Army misled investigators of the Red Cross incident.
The President reiterates the need to allow all media to have equal and opportune access to the most imporant news.
It is serious that members of the Armed Forces clandestinely leaked news without coordination with their superiors. In addition, it is serious that not all of the truth came out in the first investigations of the Operation.
The use of the Red Cross emblem appears to have responded to a command decision, not the impulsive actions of a panicky soldier. As a result – painful as it is, since it happened in the context of a heroic rescue operation – those responsible for this international humanitarian law violation need to be investigated and punished, as do those responsible for the apparent cover-up.
The punishment may ultimately be light: the remarkable success of OperaciÃ³n Jaque makes a strong case for leniency. But the law was broken, and an investigative and judicial process must be initiated and allowed to run its course.
Colombia is trying to emerge from decades in which too many – narcos, corrupt politicians, paramilitaries, those who supported them – accumulated power and wealth by acting as though the law did not apply to them. Only by strict adherence to the rule of law – with no exceptions, even in politically difficult cases like the Red Cross emblem’s use in OperaciÃ³n Jaque – can Colombia show that it is truly leaving that dark past behind.
Update 5:30 PM EST: El Tiempo, covering Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos’s and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Freddy Padilla’s comments to the press, reports that, according to these officials, the army officer who wore the ICRC emblem lied to them, will be “sanctioned” and will not receive medals for his participation in the operation.