Misuse of the Red Cross Emblem: Current Issues and Future Challenges


International Law Matters is pleased to welcome this guest post by Jonathan Crowe.  Jonathan Crowe is an Associate Professor in the T C Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. He is co-author (with Kylie Weston-Scheuber) of Principles of International Humanitarian Law (Edward Elgar, 2013). A version of this article appeared previously in the ‘Australian Red Cross International Humanitarian Law Magazine’.

The Red Cross emblem is one of the most widely recognised symbols in the world. This is as it should be: the emblem, along with the red crescent and the more recently adopted red crystal, plays an indispensable role in protecting humanitarian workers during armed conflicts. Misuse of the protected emblems has long been a problem recognised by international humanitarian law. Traditionally, efforts to preserve the sanctity of the emblems have centered on combating perfidious uses, where the emblem is deliberately employed by combatants to gain a military advantage.

Nowadays, however, the ubiquity of the Red Cross in popular culture also poses another type of problem: its use on television and in movies, as well as in computer games and on the internet, poses the risk that its protective function will gradually come to be diluted. The problem here is not deliberate abuse of the emblem in the context of armed conflict, but rather its casual or inadvertent misuse in peacetime contexts unconnected to its proper function under the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

An example of misuse of the Red Cross emblem in armed conflict arose in the context of the civil war in Colombia. On 2 July 2008, Colombian security forces rescued fifteen hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who had been held for up to ten years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). The rescue was widely hailed as a daring coup: it involved the use of bogus communications to persuade FARC rebels to release the hostages to a group posing as aid workers. Photographs and video footage taken of soldiers about to embark on the mission appeared to show one man wearing a bib bearing the Red Cross emblem.

The use of the Red Cross symbol in this context constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law. Article 44 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949 reserves the emblem for use by medical units and other humanitarian personnel, while Articles 37 and 38 of the First Additional Protocol of 1977 expressly prohibit its use as a ruse to invite the confidence of the enemy. Although these conventions only cover international armed conflicts, the same principles are widely recognised as applying in all forms of warfare. Article 12 of the Second Additional Protocol of 1977 prohibits the improper use of the protected emblems in internal conflicts.

The Colombian civil war has also thrown up other instances of the perfidious use of the Red Cross symbol. The two main rebel groups, FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, have been known to exploit the protected emblems, sometimes transporting armed combatants in ambulances. These examples illustrate the importance of dissemination, monitoring, and political pressure in ensuring that all parties in contemporary conflicts respect the significance of the emblems.

The task of making combatants, officials, and members of the public aware of the importance of the Red Cross emblem has not been aided by inappropriate uses in peacetime. A famous example arose in relation to the 1987 James Bond film, The Living Daylights, which depicted opium being smuggled in sacks marked with the Red Cross emblem and a man being kidnapped in a helicopter bearing the emblem.

More recently, similar issues have arisen in relation to depictions of the Red Cross symbol in computer games and on the internet. The Red Cross is widely used in war-based computer games to denote medical equipment or installations, and is sometimes shown on personnel or vehicles taking part in combat. The use of the emblem in these contexts has led to efforts by the Red Cross movement to engage game manufacturers directly, but the practice has proved difficult to change. This is no doubt partly due to the ubiquitous and unauthorised use of the emblem in other forms of popular culture, which belies the seriousness of the underlying issue.

The contemporary importance of the internet as a source of information and entertainment has introduced a new challenge in monitoring and discouraging unauthorised use of the protected emblems. A report by the World Intellectual Property Organisation in April 2002 noted a range of misuses of the emblems in domain names and on websites, including their association with pornography, online retailers, and various political groups. The transnational and rapidly evolving nature of online information makes these types of abuses particularly difficult to counteract.

The abuses of the Red Cross emblem in Columbia and its inappropriate depiction in popular culture may appear to raise quite different issues. It is tempting to view misuses of the protected emblems in peacetime as trivial compared to perfidious uses in wartime. However, the effectiveness of the emblems relies on participants in armed conflicts recognising and respecting their protective function. Their misuse in popular culture holds clear potential to dilute this significance, fueling a blasé attitude that can only encourage abuses such as those in the Colombian conflict.

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