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Sierra Leone: ICRC cleared over arms delivery allegations

01-09-2005 Interview

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was made public on the 8 August 2005. The TRC report fully clears the ICRC of the allegations of use of its helicopter to support the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during the conflict. Jürg Montani, the ICRC's head of delegation in Sierra Leone, comments on the affair.

 We assume you are pleased with the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)?  

I am indeed. The TRC confirms the results of Government's own investigation into these allegations, which had already cleared the ICRC of any suspicion in April 1999. Nevertheless, rumours and allegations persisted for many years. With the TRC report, there is finally tangible and independent proof that the ICRC was not involved in any illegal activities and was true to its principle of neutrality. The ICRC has furnished the Commission with sufficient evidence, which satisfied the Commission that the helicopter alleged to be involved in arms trafficking was not an ICRC helicopter. 

 How did these accusations come about?  

Several witnesses saw a helicopter marked with a red cross sign fly to RUF held areas in the Makeni area in 1998. These witnesses said that the helicopter was used to deliver weapons, ammunitions and other supplies to the RUF. This helicopter, however, was not the one the ICRC was using to deliver humanitarian aid to the civilian population affected by the conflict. The ICRC had all its flights cleared and controlled by the authorities and proved that the helicopter sighted by the witnesses was not the ICRC's. T he helicopter seen in Makeni was not flying for humanitarian purposes, and the Red Cross emblem was misused.   

 Why did the ICRC use helicopters during the war in Sierra Leone?  

The ICRC has been working in Sierra Leone since 1990. Throughout the war, the ICRC assisted victims in all areas affected by the conflict. The ICRC used helicopters to gain access to areas that could not be reached by road. The flights carried only materials for relief and medical operations. According to its standard worldwide working modalities, the ICRC always operated with the explicit authorisation of all parties involved. These operations took place in government controlled areas, and since 1996 also included assistance to civilians in areas controlled by the RUF. All flights were precisely notified and the cargo checked by the authorities.

 What are the consequences of misuse of the emblem?  

The Red Cross emblem is often the only protection Red Cross staff have, even at times of conflict. All combatants should understand and trust that the bearer of the emblem is there for purely humanitarian purposes, and should therefore be protected from attack and supported in his or her mission. If the emblem is misused by the parties to a conflict, the real humanitarian workers lose the trust of the combatants and are put at high personal risk. Humanitarian aid operations may be stalled, and in the end, the victims of a conflict may be left without vital support. This is why the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems ar e specifically protected by International Law.

 How can the emblem be protected from misuse?      

The Geneva Conventions oblige the States to adopt specific national legislation to avoid all risks of misuse. Each State must adopt a number of measures for the identification of the emblem, designate a national authority competent to regulate the use of the emblem and draw up a list of the entities entitled to use it. The State must also adopt national legislation prohibiting and punishing the non-authorised use of the emblem. The use of the emblem on a vehicle used to transport troops or weapons during conflict is an abuse of the protection granted by the emblem – that can amount to perfidy, which can be a war crime.

 What does the ICRC do to protect the emblem from abuse?      

All we can do is remind and convince all parties to a conflict of the importance of respecting the emblem. For our part, as a humanitarian organisation bearing the Red Cross emblem, we have to ensure that our staff respect the principles of neutrality and impartiality so that we remain trustworthy to all parties to a conflict. The standards that we demand of our staff for integrity and accountability are very high and very strict.