Understanding the Geneva Conventions


Senior Member
Jun 30, 2004
By Tim Wilson | September 22, 2006

If our politicians really studied the Geneva Conventions they would quickly find that terrorists are not covered and that terrorists and various Nations sponsoring terrorism are guilty of War Crimes. Send this page to a friend
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It has been a few years since I last had to train in the Geneva Conventions (all US and UK military are required to undergo such training). In 1998 I gave a series of lectures to my soldiers on the relevant parts relating to Prisoners of War, so I had read the entire set of Conventions and Protocols. As a result I have followed with informed interest and some confusion the debates and squabbles over the treatment of prisoners held in Guantanamo and other places by the US authorities and also the various accusations of War Crimes made against Coalition troops in Iraq and the Israelis in Lebanon.

The current debate in America is over how the USA should deal with Convention 3 (of 4) in particular, which covers the treatment of Prisoners of War. In particular, those urging caution on the grounds of setting a precedent which might affect the treatment of our own troops captured by the enemy seem not to have read the Conventions in question. If they had, they would not be claiming the wording is vague. It may not be clear beyond all reasonable doubt to a lawyer (what is?), but it is expressed in such a way as to be sensible to any military personnel (soldiers do not make a handsome living by arguing in court over the meaning of a word, they just put their lives on the line to defend their countries). If any legal documents need to be written for soldiers rather than lawyers, it is surely the Geneva Conventions.

The prisoners taken in the war on terror are mentioned in the 1st Geneva Convention, Article 44:

"3. In order to promote the protection of the civilian population from the effects of hostilities, combatants are obliged to distinguish themselves from the civilian population while they are engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack. Recognizing, however, that there are situations in armed conflicts where, owing to the nature of the hostilities an armed combatant cannot so distinguish himself, he shall retain his status as a combatant, provided that, in such situations, he carries his arms openly:(a) during each military engagement, and (b) during such time as he is visible to the adversary while he is engaged in a military deployment preceding the launching of an attack in which he is to participate."

"A combatant who falls into the power of an adverse Party while failing to meet the requirements set forth in the second sentence of paragraph 3 shall forfeit his right to be a Prisoner of War"

The enemy in the war on terror rarely wear uniform except for publicity, do not carry their arms openly, do not carry identity cards and do not abide by the Geneva Conventions. It is clear to me that captive terrorists are not Prisoners of War even though we have come to call them prisoners-of-war. By using this title, we extend them protections and privileges which are above and beyond their entitlement and, albeit subconsciously, treat them better than they deserve. This is a good thing even though those who hide amongst civilians, only fighting from ambush or when cornered deserve no compassion and little mercy.

In any case, the argument over the wording of the Geneva Conventions is specious as the enemy in the current war in terror has no sense of honor or justice that we can comprehend. Our troops know that if they are captured by Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or any of their ilk, they will not be treated according to the Geneva Conventions or any other internationally recognised protocol, law or decent practise. They know they can expect torture, disfigurement and a horrible, painful death – in other words they know they would become victims of war crimes. Article 13 of the 3rd Convention includes the following which is of no comfort to the families of our military who fall into enemy hands:

"Measures of reprisal against Prisoners of War are prohibited." and "It is prohibited to order that there shall be no survivors, to threaten an adversary therewith or to conduct hostilities on this basis."

If our politicians really studied the Geneva Conventions they would quickly find that terrorists are not covered and that terrorists and various Nations sponsoring terrorism are guilty of War Crimes, with the Nations also in breach of the Charter of the United Nations. The meanings of the various articles making up the Conventions and Protocols may not be clear to lawyers, but to anyone with a grain of common sense, the intent is crystal clear. Our politicians should be calling unanimously for the UN to be taking action against those who have clearly committed War Crimes rather than trying to score domestic political points.

The following extract from the 4th Geneva Convention applies to the committing of War Crimes:

"With respect to attacks, the following precautions shall be taken: (a) those who plan or decide upon an attack shall: (i) do everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects and are not subject to special protection but are military objectives within the meaning of paragraph 2 of Article 52 and that it is not prohibited by the provisions of this Protocol to attack them; (ii) take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss or civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects; (iii) refrain from deciding to launch any attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated;…"

It seems to me that in the recent Lebanon conflict the Israeli military probably followed these rules, Hezbollah clearly did not. In Iraq, our troops follow the intent, while Saddam Hussein did, and his friends and would-be successors do, not. But further clarity is added in Protocol 1:

"…the following acts shall be regarded as grave breaches of this Protocol, when committed wilfully, in violation of the relevant provisions of this Protocol, and causing death or serious injury to body or health: (a) making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack; (b) launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects,…"

"Without prejudice to the application of the Conventions and of this Protocol, grave breaches of these instruments shall be regarded as war crimes."

Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and Saddam Hussein have not been cited, but clearly are guilty of deliberate, planned and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.

Perhaps more importantly, the status of captured terrorists is one of the few things which some regard as unclear in these documents, perhaps because they need updating to take into account the changes which have taken place in the nature of warfare over the last 60 years. Arguably however, they do not need updating as they do not apply to terrorists. By the very way they operate, the modern Islamofascist terrorist is operating illegally and is to be treated in the same way as a saboteur or spy. If an update is needed it is only to clarify the status of terrorists by confirming specifically that those who wage war through the flagrant breaching of the Geneva Conventions are not entitled to their (or any other) protections. The following extract from Protocol 1 summarises terrorist disregard for international law, which places them beyond its protections:

"The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited."

To date, our treatment of prisoners has been mostly well handled. I do not approve of gratuitous torture, although I believe that robust questioning can be necessary to prevent mass murder. I also have considerable faith in the military command structure and their ability to place reasonable limits on just how robust the methods of interrogation can be. Surely the fuss over Adu Ghraib demonstrated just how little tolerance we have for abuse? The problem was dealt with well, except in terms of media coverage whose sense of perspective missed such comments as that of an Iraqi friend of mine: "I spent 2 years in Abu Ghraib. I wish Saddam had sent a woman to torture me by playing with me" (he had several fingers removed by a hammer).

Furthermore, should we chose to send some prisoners to other (Geneva Convention signatory) nations, how are we responsible if they chose to act differently in their perceived national interests? Should we not take advantage of their less liberal attitudes? We are civilised and do not need to maim or kill, but that does not mean we should handle potential sources of vital information with kid gloves as if they were normal citizens of our own countries, nor protect them from the consequences of being returned to their native countries. When they have been captured in the act of fighting, or very close to known terrorists, or a number of other similar situations, it makes no sense not to find out what they know through some cowardly or warped sense of self-righteousness or legal befuddlement.

Future plans to further limit the means by which our intelligence agencies can interrogate prisoners-of-war (as opposed to Prisoners-Of-War) during this war on terror put us all at unnecessary increased risk. Those who support such limitations may be misguided idealists, but they are dangerous to us as well as to themselves. Please write to your Senators and Representatives telling them to support the President and give the military and intelligence agencies the tools they need to keep us safe. If they need to enact legislation, let it be to add to our protections, not to decrease them.

Let us continue to act in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, in a civilised manner, rather than an idealistic legal or political corruption which benefits the uncivilised forces who want to attack us.


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