Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Geneva Conventions: What Are They? What Are They Worth?

Half a million detainees and prisoners of war visited! Year after year I am astounded by the immense scope of International Committee of the Red Cross services in behalf of victims of war. These services—along with many more not mentioned in my summary above—are mandated by the Geneva Conventions, and the Conventions designate the ICRC as the chief agency to provide them. More broadly, the ICRC is the official promulgator and administrator of the Geneva Conventions worldwide.

For several years the Conventions have not received much public attention. Now the crisis in Syria has put them back in the news. But what exactly are the Geneva Conventions, and what are they worth?

What are the Geneva Conventions?

The Geneva Conventions establish rules to mitigate suffering and safeguard human life and dignity in the midst of armed conflict. They were drawn up in 1949 under Red Cross auspices. Since then the Conventions have been ratified by virtually every nation in the world—the only international treaty ever to receive such universal acceptance.

In international armed conflicts, whatever their cause or legitimacy, the Geneva Conventions give rules for protecting armed forces on land and sea who are wounded, shipwrecked, captured, detained, or for any other reason no longer taking part in hostilities. Convention rules specify protection for the personnel and facilities of medical and relief agencies; for cultural and religious institutions and the natural environment; for journalists and official peacekeepers; and for civilians swept up in war.

The Conventions declare that persons under their protection are "in all circumstances" entitled to humane treatment. All wounded and sick are to be evacuated, sheltered, and cared for. Certain acts are "prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever": the taking of hostages; violence, cruelty, and torture; "humiliating or degrading treatment and other outrages upon personal dignity." Terrorism is condemned. Punishment of protected persons is allowable only within a framework of internationally-recognized conditions guaranteeing a fair trial.

How well are the Geneva Conventions observed?

Tragically, the Conventions are often violated, both by nations who have signed them and by insurgent and terrorist groups who do not represent nation-states. We hear much more about violations than about successes. Yet day after day, year after year, the Conventions are quietly at work, restraining and protecting soldiers from extremes of violence, ensuring visits to detainees and prisoners of war, reuniting families, shielding humanitarian workers, and caring for innocent civilians.

How are violations punished?

The Geneva Conventions have no mechanism for coercive enforcement or punishment of violators. Responsibility for enforcement and punishment rests upon the international community of signatory nations.

Armed-forces personnel who are accused of violating the Geneva Conventions are prosecuted in military courts. Accused civilians, including government officials at all levels, can be tried in the domestic courts of any nation, in the International Criminal Court, or in special war-crimes tribunals—of which the best known is the Nuremberg Trials and the most recent is the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Governments can also be charged with war crimes. Enforcement and punishment take the form of trade sanctions, demands for financial compensation, economic boycotts, seizing of financial assets, and international scorn toward a rogue or pariah nation.

What motivates nations to sign the Conventions?

Few if any nations want to be marked as rogue or pariah because they have not joined the international community of Geneva Convention signatories. Nations are also motivated by considerations of national security and self-interest. Here I summarize some of those considerations as listed in a handbook used by military judges in the United States 
(Operational Law Handbook, 2007, p.39), considerations that are shared by other nations as well:

Reasons to Comply with the Laws of War
Even if the Enemy Does Not
  • Violations of the Geneva Conventions may encourage enemy forces to fight harder and resist surrender.
  • Mistreatment of prisoners may encourage the enemy to mistreat our captured soldiers.
  • Compliance with the Conventions maintains discipline in combat and reduces the costs of reconstruction afterwards.
  • The Geneva Conventions are written into the statutes of every signatory nation, and therefore violations are criminal acts under domestic law, in some cases punishable by death.
  • Violations seriously reduce public support for military missions, both at home and abroad.

What Are the Geneva Conventions Worth?

Clearly the Conventions are worth a great deal to the half million detainees and their families mentioned in the box at the head of this posting, and to millions of military personnel, displaced persons, refugees, and relief workers who for well over half a century have experienced Convention protection and services.

The final point from the handbook for military judges, tabulated just above, suggests that worldwide public awareness enhances the value of the Geneva Conventions. Numerous commentators have concluded that public opinion is significantly influencing international policymaking in relation to Syria. (More about the Syria crisis in my next blog.)

I believe that as citizens we should be actively involved in policymaking. We can keep alert to events and weigh policy options; share concerns and opinions through our social networks; write to our newspapers and congressional delegates; sign petitions and display bumper stickers. We can vote and help others to vote. We can donate to humanitarian agencies that work alongside the ICRC in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. I think of Amnesty International and Doctors without Borders.

The more public knowledge and support, the more the Geneva Conventions are worth. Together we can make it ever more clear to governments at home and everywhere: The whole world is watching.


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