Attacks against Red Cross in Libya: A case of ‘misunderstanding’?

    Red Cross emblem. Despite its neutral stance, the Red Cross in Libya has been subject to suspicion, with some people in the country believing it is no different from Western agencies. Photo by: Chris / CC BY-NC-SA

    It is still not clear why the International Committee of the Red Cross has been the subject of attacks in recent months. But the delegation’s incoming head offers some ideas.

    “There has apparently been a flare-up of misunderstandings and mistrust” against the Red Cross, Ishfaq Muhamad Khan said in an interview posted on the organization’s website.

    The Red Cross has often reiterated its neutral stance, especially when working in conflict-afflicted states such as Libya. But Khan thinks some people in the country remain “suspicious” of the organization, and some perceive the Red Cross as no different from “Western agencies.”

    Khan attributes the misconception to the organization’s “still new” presence in Libya, which has also led some to think the ICRC is a Christian organization.

    “We need to explain that the emblems of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have no religious significance,” Khan said, referring to the organization’s logo, which makes use of a cross. He reiterated that the emblems are used to identify and protect ICRC staff members, buildings and vehicles.

    Khan also denied allegations by the Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman in Libya, which has claimed responsibility for an attack against the organization’s offices in Benghazi in May. The group, which has alleged affiliations with al-Qaida, accused ICRC of proselytizing and handing out bibles among the internally displaced people in Benghazi.

    The ICRC works to protect “victims of armed conflict … no matter who they may be,” Khan said. “How could we achieve such humanitarian goals if we were taking sides?”

    The Red Cross currently has 130 national and 50 international staff members in Libya who are doing various work, including helping account for missing persons, assisting migrants and the displaced, monitoring conditions of detainees and ensuring work on clearing explosives continue.

    Libyan authorities have also asked the organization for help in incorporating the international humanitarian law in the national legislation, Khan said.

    The ICRC’s operations in Misrata and Benghazi remain suspended. But the organization hopes to resume work in the two cities “as soon as conditions allow.” For the mean time, they are intensifying dialogue with all parties to be “accepted and well perceived by the Libyan population.”

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    About the author

    • Jenny Lei Ravelo

      Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.