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Iraq: Are The Geneva Conventions Still Relevant Today?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Iraqi television has shown footage of five U.S. soldiers it said were captured yesterday in southern Iraq. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the video Iraqi propaganda and said it violates the Geneva conventions. But surrendered and captured Iraqi troops have also been shown on U.S. news broadcasts. The Geneva conventions have governed the treatment of prisoners of war for more than 50 years now. They have been the international standard by which the humanity of warring parties has been judged. But most people know little of the actual mechanisms of the complicated set of documents that make up the conventions.

Prague, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During the late summer of 1949, haze lay heavily over Switzerland's Lake Geneva. The city itself, never a very lively place, was drowsing in the heat.

But down by the lakeside, hundreds of diplomats were hard at work. Their task: to frame a set of conventions setting humanitarian standards for the proper treatment and protection of people caught up in war -- both combatants and noncombatants. What finally was adopted on 12 August 12, after four months of deliberations, was a set of four conventions:

-- Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field;

-- Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea;

-- Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War;

-- and Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

In time, a number of protocols were added to the basic documents. Today, some 190 states adhere to the Geneva conventions, and new states are continuing to join. For instance, the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean became a signatory in recent years.

Fast-forward to the present day and look at how the Geneva conventions apply to a particular case, namely, the filming by Iraqi state television of interviews with five people purported to be U.S. soldiers captured in southern Iraq. It also showed the bodies of up to eight of their comrades.

The soldiers were asked questions, such as why they had come to Iraq, and what sort of welcome they had expected. One young soldier was plainly very nervous.

The public airing of such a video appears to be in breach of Article 13 of the third Geneva convention, which deals with the treatment of prisoners of war. That article states that at all times, prisoners of war must be protected against, among other things, "insults and public curiosity."

A London-based senior research fellow with the Centre for European Reform, Adam Townsend, said the word "appears" is appropriate in that context because times and technologies have changed since 1949. "When the Geneva convention was drafted, the idea of reality TV was nowhere in the minds of the drafters and politicians who negotiated it, so it's hard to say in which direction we should go -- should we show more flexibility in interpreting the terms of the Geneva convention, or [not]?" Townsend said.

The London-based international rights group Amnesty International is urging Iraq not to ill-treat its prisoners of war and is calling on the news media to respect the dignity of captives on both sides of the conflict.

In a bit of dramatic overstatement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the pictures of captured U.S. troops broadcast on Iraqi television show why President Saddam Hussein has to be toppled from power.

Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Muhammad al-Duri, yesterday assured the world that Baghdad will follow the conventions. "We are respecting the international humanitarian law, and we will respect the Geneva convention, and we will respect all the prisoners of war, and we will treat them appropriately as the Geneva convention asks us to do," al-Duri said.

Pictures of surrendered and captured Iraqi troops taken by Western journalists attached to U.S. and British military forces in Iraq have also been broadcast by various media outlets. Whether or not these generalized images breach the Geneva conventions would appear to depend on the extent to which they arouse "public curiosity" toward any particular individual.

Let's take another case: the capture yesterday by U.S. forces of what they believe to be a chemical-weapons factory near the Iraqi city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Among the prisoners taken were two Iraqi generals, both of whom were reportedly being interrogated and were providing information.

Does this breach the Geneva conventions?

Under Article 17, prisoners of war are required to give their rank, name, and serial number -- nothing more. The article states that "no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever."

So questioning itself does not infringe the convention. It is the method of questioning that counts.

As to the issue of whether the Geneva conventions remain relevant in a changing world, Townsend is certain they do. "The basic principles of the Geneva conventions have been established through a few thousand years of warfare -- literally, a few thousand years. So I think very few people would argue that the basic protections contained in the Geneva conventions should be done away with or changed," Townsend said.