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Big Powers Faulted for Abuse of Geneva Conventions

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - When human rights groups accused the United States of violating the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners-of-war (PoWs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration of former President George W. Bush either displayed arrogance or feigned ignorance of the implications of abusing humanitarian laws.

When Bush was told that his administration was in violation of international human rights treaties, he reportedly shot back - according to a joke circulating in Washington at that time - "What Geneva Conventions? I thought we invaded Iraq, not Switzerland?"

The Geneva Conventions of 1949, which will be 60 years old later this week, consist of four treaties and three additional protocols that govern the humanitarian treatment of PoWs and civilians during military conflicts.

Still, countries such as the U.S., Britain and Israel have tried to bypass the Geneva Conventions on the grounds that they do not apply to "terror suspects" or "terrorists."

"The argument that Geneva Conventions should not apply to terror suspects is an argument I never expected to hear in any country that claims to be a democracy under the rule of law," Michael Ratner, president of the New York- based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told IPS.

The minimum humane treatment provisions of Common Article 3 apply to everyone in all times and places.

"The U.S. and other countries' efforts to get out from under their humane legal obligations is and was obscene," said Ratner, who also teaches international human rights law at the Columbia University Law School.

Ed Cairns, senior policy adviser at the London-based humanitarian organisation Oxfam, said no country can justify violating Geneva Conventions by arguing they do not apply to "terror suspects."

"The Geneva Conventions are really the most simple and basic rights even the most vulnerable and abandoned individuals can claim in the middle of a conflict," he said.

Common article 3 to all four Geneva Conventions, in particular, states that violence to life and person - in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, taking of hostages and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment - are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever.

"There cannot be any twisted legal relativisation of such basic principles," Cairns told IPS.

Oxfam, which works in most of the world's battle zones, points out that violations of the Geneva Conventions are a daily occurrence.

Pointing out that levels of impunity and lawlessness in most conflict zones have reached crisis levels, Oxfam says that acts of serious violence against aid workers have almost doubled since 2001.

The continued violations of international humanitarian law continue in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Palestine, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

"The U.N. Security Council has the political responsibility to enforce and uphold the Conventions," says Arjan El Fassed, humanitarian campaigner at Oxfam.

"But often nowadays, the five permanent members [China, Britain, France, Russia and the U.S.], fail to agree upon needed measures to protect civilians and effectively implement the Conventions, though all have recognised their 'responsibility to protect.'"

In the 22-day conflict in Gaza last year, more than 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed by the Israelis - compared with 13 Israeli civilians.

According to an article in the official Journal of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy in Israel, Israeli soldiers described the "wanton killings" of Palestinians and destruction of property during that deadly conflict.

In 2004, there were reports of widespread sexual abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers - some of them documented in photographs and films, in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Last month, the U.N. said the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan has increased by over 24 percent so far this year - totalling about 1,013 - compared to 2008 and 48 percent higher than in 2007.

The killings were attributed both to Western military forces and the Taliban insurgents.

Ratner of the Centre for Constitutional Rights said the best way to ensure enforcement of the Geneva Conventions is to bring suit for violations against the powerful countries and not just the weaker countries, and to prosecute the leaders of the strong nations and not just the leaders of the weaker nations.

"To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the law and the fundamental rights and duties guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions."

He said the 192-member U.N. General Assembly, as it did in the case of the wall built in Palestine, could refer a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against any country, but especially one involving the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Ratner said it could also refer questions of the civilian killings in Afghanistan by the U.S., to the ICJ, or refer the question of the legality of the initiation of the war in Iraq to it as well.

Officials of the permanent members engaged in violations of Geneva Conventions could be brought before the ICC, Ratner said. "The pursuit of criminal violations of the Geneva Conventions in the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the leaders of the major powers for law violations would even be more effective than going to the ICJ."

"Even one such prosecution for war crimes at the ICC would send a dramatic message that the law applies to all. That is what is needed," he stressed.

What is not needed, he argued, is the discriminatory and one sided international justice system in place today.

Prosecutions in national courts for violation of Geneva Conventions could also be an important enforcement mechanism. The Geneva Conventions give those courts that authority: they should begin to use it, he declared.

Asked if there is a need to amend the Geneva Conventions to conform to the increasing war crimes and terrorism plaguing the world at large, Cairns of Oxfam told IPS: "No - broadly speaking this argument for revising the Conventions has declined since President Bush left office."

"In broad terms, the Geneva Conventions do not need revising in this way. What they do need is implementation," he added.

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