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?"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
which works in most of the world's battle zones, points out that
violations of the Geneva Conventions are a daily occurrence.
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.
violations of international humanitarian law continue in Afghanistan,
Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Palestine, Sudan and
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
What is not needed, he argued, is the discriminatory and one sided international justice system in place today.
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.
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.