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Gaddafi reportedly mines harbor using helicopters with “Red Cross” and “Red Crescent” markings

Chris Albon reports over at the UN Dispatch:

Since February, the Libyan city of Misrata has been under siege by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. The only lifeline to the city comes from ships chartered by humanitarian organization like the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Organization. These ships have ferried thousands of tons of food, health personnel, medical supplies, and other humanitarian material into the city, often at great risk to themselves.

Pro-Gaddafi forces have made multiple attempts to cut Misrata’s sea-based lifeline. The harbor area of the city has suffered repeated artillery strikes since the siege began. Furthermore, last Wednesday Gaddafi’s forces launched a rocket attack against a ferry chartered by the IOM to bring food and medical supplies into the city, and evacuate migrant workers still stranded there. Luckily, the ship — which carries a makeshift hospital — was able to leave port without serious damage.

Now there are accusations that Gaddafi is employing a new tactic. According to Libyan rebels and at least one aid worker in the city, pro-Gaddafi forces are using helicopters to drop naval mines in the harbor in an attempt to prevent any ships — including those carrying humanitarian supplies — from docking. Worse still, the helicopters are allegedly being disguised with Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.

He said the choppers had been disguised as humanitarian aircraft carrying the emblems of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

“They had Red Crescent and Red Cross markers so that anyone who sees them thinks it is for humanitarian aid,” Fortiya said.

NATO has confirmed that unknown helicopters were observed flying over the harbor and came under fire from rebel forces on Thursday and that no humanitarian flights had been scheduled for that day. However, they could not confirm that the helicopter were marked with Red Crosses.

If true — and at this point nothing Gaddafi does surprises me — it would be just one more blatant violation of international humanitarian law by the dictator.

If this is true, as Chris notes, this is a clear violation of international law. The Geneva Convention on the Sick and Wounded in the Field (Geneva I) provides:

Art. 44. With the exception of the cases mentioned in the following paragraphs of the present Article, the emblem of the red cross on a white ground and the words ” Red Cross” or ” Geneva Cross ” may not be employed, either in time of peace or in time of war, except to indicate or to protect the medical units and establishments, the personnel and material protected by the present Convention and other Conventions dealing with similar matters. The same shall apply to the emblems mentioned in Article 38, second paragraph, in respect of the countries which use them. The National Red Cross Societies and other societies designated in Article 26 shall have the right to use the distinctive emblem conferring the protection of the Convention only within the framework of the present paragraph.

Furthermore, National Red Cross (Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun) Societies may, in time of peace, in accordance with their national legislation, make use of the name and emblem of the Red Cross for their other activities which are in conformity with the principles laid down by the International Red Cross Conferences. When those activities are carried out in time of war, the conditions for the use of the emblem shall be such that it cannot be considered as conferring the protection of the Convention; the emblem shall be comparatively small in size and may not be placed on armlets or on the roofs of buildings.

The international Red Cross organizations and their duly authorized personnel shall be permitted to make use, at all times, of the emblem of the red cross on a white ground.

As an exceptional measure, in conformity with national legislation and with the express permission of one of the National Red Cross (Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun) Societies, the emblem of the Convention may be employed in time of peace to identify vehicles used as ambulances and to mark the position of aid stations exclusively assigned to the purpose of giving free treatment to the wounded or sick. (emphasis added)


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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.