War is declared

On the night of 2nd - 3rd October 1935, Italian forces began their invasion of Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), and Italian Leader Benito Mussolini - Il Duce - could be quite certain that he risked little in the way of deterrence or retaliation. Through the weakened League of Nations, the so-called "international community" of the day, denounced the attack, the sanctions it levied were ineffective.

France and the United Kingdom had little desire to use force against a European government that at the moment seemed like a potential ally in the seemingly inevitable fight against the increasingly belligerent Nazi Germany

Ethiopian soldiers in a fox hole with a mortar during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, 1935.

Ethiopian soldiers in a fox hole with a mortar during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, 1935. [1200x864] - Imgur

Italy's colony in northern Somaliland provided easy access to Ethiopia thanks to the Suez Canal's continued to remain open. There was little doubt regarding the outcome of the war thanks to Italy's overwhelming military supremacy, particularly its air force. Eventually, after several fierce battles in which Italy retained the upper hand, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was forced to flee as Italian forces entered Addis Ababa in the early days of May 1936.

During the conflict, between December 1935 and the spring of 1936, the air force of fascist Italy assaulted over 20 Red Cross and Red Crescent field hospitals that were entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions. The Ethiopian army's sick and injured personnel were being cared for in the hospitals.

British Red Cross ambulance unit destroyed by the Italian air force.

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The Red Cross in Ethiopia

The ICRC's (International Committee of the Red Cross) top priority at the beginning of the conflict was to defend the Geneva Conventions' protection of the sick, injured, and, since 1929, prisoners of war. The Convention for the sick and wounded was immediately ratified by Ethiopia, but the Emperor refused to ratify the treaty governing prisoners. However, the 1925 Protocol forbidding the use of poison gas applied to both Ethiopia and Italy.

The ICRC extended its assistance to both parties, as it does at the beginning of every conflict. However, through its Red Cross organisation, Italy declined any assistance. 

In contrast – and demonstrating the vast gulf in resources between the two warring countries - Ethiopia welcomed the assistance. It was in a similar predicament to what Europe had experienced a hundred years before: It lacked military medical services or an established Red Cross presence.

The notable humanitarian career of Dr. Marcel Junod began when an ICRC group was sent to Addis Ababa to assist in setting up field hospitals. A dozen mobile field hospitals, some of which were sent by other national Red Cross societies, were organised by Junod.

After the Italian attack on the Swedish Red Cross unit.

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The two warring nations traded accusations of wrongdoing and legal violations through the ICRC and the League of Nations, with the media responding with predictable uproar.

The Italians claimed that Ethiopian military operations were being concealed by units bearing the red cross emblem and were cruelly mistreating captured servicemen.

The latter claim was impossible for Junod to substantiate because both he and the ICRC's requests to visit detainees held by the Emperor's army were ignored.

Junod, however, having witnessed first hand the situation, supported the Ethiopians' complaints: some of the field hospitals, including those sent by the British and Swedish Red Cross societies, were destroyed by Italian bombing, and he himself narrowly escaped when his plane, which was parked at a remote airfield, was attacked and blown up.

Was the Red Cross deliberately targeted by the Italians?

Even though they are less well-known and well-documented than the widespread use of mustard gas, airstrikes on hospitals, field hospitals, and medical aircraft flying the red cross or red crescent rank among the most significant violations of international humanitarian law during this conflict.

This is true not only because of their frequency (between 17 and 23), but also because of the number of people they killed, injured, and damaged as a result. 

Additionally, since these attacks were repeated and the bulk of the Red Cross and Red Crescent field hospitals operating on the Ethiopian side were either directly or indirectly destroyed by Italian Air Force bombing, one is forced to wonder whether or not the strikes were intentional.

Aside from the idea of the "civilising mission" put forth by Mussolini (his arrogant view that Ethiopia would benefit from Italy civilizing them) to justify his flagrant violations of IHL (International humanitarian law), there was also the colonial attitude prevalent in Italy and elsewhere in the West - and at the ICRC - that Ethiopia was incapable of adopting the standards of the Geneva Conventions or understanding the principles that guided the work of the Red Cross due to what was claimed to be its lower level of civilization.

The propeller from a gas bomb which landed near a British Red Cross unit.

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The fascist administration repeatedly accused Ethiopia of breaking the Geneva Conventions, often without providing any evidence, in an effort to justify retaliations that were wholly in violation of the Conventions.

The government of Haile Selassie regularly complained about these assaults to the ICRC and the League of Nations. However, the ICRC chose not to condemn them out of concern for upholding its objectivity and aversion to upsetting the Italian government. Sydney Brown was the first of his colleagues in Geneva to recognise that these attacks were blatant, unequivocal violations of the Conventions, and he was confident that the Italians were deliberately targeting the Red Cross with their attacks.

Dr. Junod's perspective and interpretation was less clear. The distinguished delegate thought it quite likely that some of these strikes were malicious when hostilities first broke out. However, he adopted the much more pro-Italian position that the bombs were accidental during the closing months of the conflict and the years that followed (during which he formed anti-Ethiopian sentiments motivated by a considerable amount of xenophobia). He did however, reverse his position post war and revert back to stating that he believed the attacks by the Italians were intentional.

Further reading