A significant victory for the "humanitarian space" was achieved by NGOs in Afghanistan this week when NATO command agreed to stop using white vehicles. From now, all 58,000 troops in the International Security Assistance Force will use non-white cars (colours yet to be determined, and NGOs are pressing for a special colour for military vehicles.)
Why is this significant? Humanitarian organisations have traditionally used white vehicles as it is the universal colour for peace, neutrality, innocence (and happily, white reflects the sun best). A white armband was the initial symbol for neutral medical staff on the battlefield, with the Red Cross being added when the ICRC was first formed as the International Committee for Relief to Wounded Soldiers.
If there can be no distinction made between belligerents and neutral humanitarian staff then the lives of the latter are placed in jeopardy. Furthermore, it confuses the local civilian population who cannot be clear on the motives or identity of those who are promising them aid.
Every Red Cross vehicle in the world is emblazoned with a logo of a Kalashnikov with a red line through it - No Guns on Board. The Red Cross symbol alone should - but alas is not - be the only protection aid workers need, as the Red Cross (or Crescent) symbol is enshrined in international law signifying that the bearer takes no part in hostilities.
There are those who would argue that the ambiguity worked in favour of aid workers - if stoned teenagers on a checkpoint weren't sure if there were weapons on board they might show more respect. That of course is sheer bollakiss. The only way to prove you come in peace is to arrive weaponless (the origin of shaking hands - immobilising the sword arm). People carrying no weapons pose no threat. Yes, it makes them more vulnerable but that's the tradeoff we make (and it has a tendancy to improve ones communication skills).
A good friend who served as head of mission in Afghanistan for MSF-Holland was my co-tutor at the International Diploma for Humanitarian Affairs in Fordham University in 2004. While the course was on, several of his friends and colleages were ambushed and murdered in a white vehicle in Afghanistan. Yet he was still adamant that the military, and particularly armed "private security contractors" should be banned from using white vehicles.
The news from Afghanistan is tempered by realpolitik. There's never any 100 per cent good news. Unfortunately NATO's new policy regarding the use of white vehicles will not apply to thousands of US troops operating beyond the writ of NATO/ISAF and engaged mainly in counter-insurgency and "anti-terrorism" military activities.
More work remains to be done. Just as we seek to highlight our neutral and independent status, combatants are required under international humanitarian law to distinguish themselves from civilians in conflict.
But for now, let's celebrate this small victory and the significant enlargement of the "humanitarian space". How serendipitous that Red Cross volunteers from all over the world are right now converging by foot, car, rail and air on Solferino for the anniversary of the battle that brought the Red Cross into being.