Nov. 18, 2004Articles and commentary regarding world events
The Geneva Conventions and the question of accountability

     This newsletter addresses the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and their import for the conduct of U.S. military activity in Iraq as well as for the conduct of war between nations in general.

     There could not be a more important time for us as citizens of a warring country and of the world to know what laws apply to the actions of our military. The United States signed the original Geneva Conventions of 1949 which put into place regulations to protect human rights at a time of war or conflict. Thus, it is legally bound to follow the directives laid down at that time. Yet, even beyond the legal aspect which surrounds the conduct of war, including the current conflict in Iraq, there is the humanitarian and moral aspect. This moral aspect affects us as we watch human rights being violated by both U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents. It is what horrifies us as we witness actions engendered by hatred, rage, brutality, contempt, cruelty, and indifference - as we see atrocities being committed in the name of 'freedom' or 'democracy'.

     The Conventions were written explicitly to prevent the enactment, during war, of actions based on such attitudes. Their aim was to protect both civilian populations and prisoners of war. They have stood for more than fifty years as a barrier to 'crimes against humanity', whether it be the humanity of one individual or the humanity of a particular group. They say, beyond this line, you may not go.

     In signing the Geneva Accords, the United States agreed to abide by these regulations. It agreed to them in principle and it agreed to them in terms of law. In the view of many, it has not lived up to this agreement. It is for this reason that I am writing so fully now - so that international law protecting the rights of all can be understood and respected at a time when it is most needed, and so that each of us can judge for ourselves, what meaning to give to U.S. action in Iraq

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     It is part of the education of every American child to learn about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. These shining documents, enshrined within our history, create a sense of noble calling. They form a context for the judicial and legal system within the United States, for the behavior of the government toward its citizenry, and for the behavior of citizens toward each other. But what of the other noble documents that claim to speak for humanity as a whole - documents which strive to uphold principles of behavior of nations toward each other in wartime and in peace, so that the rights of all can be protected?

     The Geneva Conventions are a group of historical agreements which strive to preserve basic human rights. Written in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II, they endeavor to protect the rights of each person, without exception, at a time of war, at a time of invasion of one country by another, or at a time of the infringement of rights of one group by another, even within the same nation. These are documents of hope and of healing. Their purpose, to make certain that the kind of treatment of human beings that took place during the Second World War would never happen again. If the Bill of Rights for America is of ultimate value to this nation, then the Bill of Rights for the world, represented in part by the Geneva Conventions, must be of equal value to us as participants in the world.

     The Conventions were written in 1949. They became effective in 1950 and were added to in 1977 with Additional Protocols. These Additional Protocols expanded upon the original articles and definitions. Many nations, but not all, signed the original conventions, the U.S. among them. Many signed the Additional Protocols. The U.S. did not. But whether the lofty yet practical intent of the articles created a sense of accountability to what was set down - that is another thing altogether. For although a person, group, or nation can be considered to be in violation of the Conventions and therefore charged with 'war crimes' or 'crimes against humanity', not all actions taken that might fall into this category arrive readily at this definition, as we have seen with the situation in Sudan. And not all definitions within the Conventions, however clear they were intended to be, are interpreted the same way by all participating parties. Once defined, however, the signatories to the Conventions are required by the articles themselves to not stand by and allow crimes that violate the agreements to continue. They are required to set up a fact-finding commission and to pursue justice within the framework created by the articles themselves.

     Within all democracies, there are laws in place that strive to guarantee fundamental human rights. These are held as sacrosanct by many. The right to privacy is one. The right to free speech is another. The right to equal protection under the law is a third. These laws are part of what define a democracy. Are there equally sacrosanct principles that apply to the citizenry of the world, to the conduct of behavior in the global arena? Should there be? Or does each nation have the right to make its own decisions regarding what constitutes 'human rights'?

     Those who hold more loosely the Geneva Conventions, in principle or in practice, support the idea of national definitions to determine national conduct. Those who support the Conventions in a stricter sense, feel that there are interests and needs that transcend national concerns, and that the rights of individuals to respect and protection must be guaranteed as the highest priority, whether those individuals are viewed as enemies of state or whether they are seen as friends.

     The answer to the question of accountability to the Geneva Accords is extremely important at this time. For we are faced, today, with horrible acts committed in Iraq by both American forces and by the Iraqi resistance - acts that defile human beings, acts that exhibit total disrespect for individual life. The world is familiar with many of the horrific actions taken by those in protest at the American occupying presence in Iraq. The list of actions taken by the United States that has either held loosely or clearly violated one or more of the Geneva Conventions is similarly of great length.

      There are the actions taken at Abu Ghraib and at other prisons which involved the torture of prisoners during or preparatory to interrogation. There are those committed against the civilian population in cities that have been recklessly bombed or "reduced to rubble" as some observers have described it. There are actions taken against male civilians in Fallujah who had no part in the fighting, who were returned to the scene of combat at great peril to themselves because the military could, or would not, distinguish a civilian from an insurgent. There is the violation of the protections which say that medical help must be made available to both civilians and prisoners at all times. (This latter protection, in particular, is an essential aspect of why the Conventions came into being in the first place. It has been so seriously set aside that the world has yet to discover how many civilian lives have been lost or irreparably damaged in Fallujah.)

     The United States has signed the original Geneva Conventions but not the later protocols. If it were accountable to the articles of the Additional Protocols, it would not only be prohibited from the above treatment of civilians and prisoners, it would also be prohibited from bombing medical facilities, destroying places of worship unless those places were clearly being used as enemy bases for attack. Nor could it destroy bridges that created access to hospitals or clinics, or prevent or delay the Red Cross, Red Crescent, or other aid agencies from attending the wounded in the embattled cities.

     These, and so many other actions taken under the auspices of the U.S. military, indicate a lack of concern for international law, for the civilian population, and for the Geneva Conventions. An increasing portion of the world feels that these attitudes represent the U. S. government directly. This, despite the fact that the present administration has given assurance, multiple times over, of upholding the Geneva agreements. We, as citizens, must therefore ask, what do we believe the place of international law should be in the regulation of warfare when the warfare is part of our own government's policy? What do we believe about human rights?

     We have a great deal to be concerned about in this country in relation to the direction that foreign policy is taking. The 'war on terrorism' has taken us into what many feel is a 'war upon Iraq', and brought, in return, a growing resistance to the American presence there. It has taken us into multiple violations of the Geneva Accords. It has taken us into a unilateralism that is the cause for increasing reproach by both European nations and by those in the Arab world.

     We are badly in need of a new moral center to determine our foreign policy. We are badly in need of a new willingness to place cooperation with others over fear, as the basis for dealing with terrorism. We need a new consciousness, and a new definition of what it means to be a citizen of the world. Among other things, we need to teach our children about international law - the laws that apply to all people, everywhere, who share a common earth. If we do this, they may grow up to understand that there were those idealists and humanitarians who came up with laws after a terrible war - laws they hoped would guide people at a time of desperation or chaos so that the kind of atrocities that happened before would not happen again. Of course, we need to become responsible members of a nation whose history, land, and culture we identify with. But equally importantly, we need to become, and to help our children become, citizens of the world. Only in this way will they be able to play their part in a future that cares about the wellbeing of all.

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Current list of non-signatories to the Additional Protocols (1977) to the Geneva Conventions:

Afghanistan, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, East Timor, Eritrea, Fiji, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kiribati, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua - New Guinea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Tuvalu, United States of America.

     Of this list, 4 of the named are currently nuclear powers. No European nation is included on this list nor is Russia. However, Israel, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the U.S. are all on this list - some of the nations of the world who are most likely to be involved in military conflict. The others, for the most part, are tiny nations, or small island principalities.

About the Geneva Conventions

As stated in the Additional Protocols of 1979, Article 2. Definitions:

"First Convention", "Second Convention", "Third Convention" and "Fourth Convention" mean, respectively:

1) The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (Aug. 12, 1949);

2) The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea (Aug. 12, 1949);

3) The Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Aug. 12,1949);

4) The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Aug. 12, 1949);

Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of Aug. 12, 1949.

"The Conventions" means the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the protection of war victims.

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"J'accuse: War Crimes in Iraq." (Nov. 4, 2004)

"Geneva Conventions protect wounded in war." (Nov. 16, 2004)

"The Geneva Convention is out the window." (Nov. 13, 2004)

"Wisconsin students learning rules of war." May 14, 2003.

"We want them to have a global awareness and a sense of humanity." (The western Weisconsin students are the first in the United States to participate in learning humanitarian law through the pilot implementation project coordinated by UW-River Falls.)

The Fourth Convention and the Additional Protocols

Fourth Convention related to the protection of civilians:

Art. 18. Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.

Art. 19. The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.

Art. 21. Convoys of vehicles or hospital trains on land or specially provided vessels on sea, conveying wounded and sick civilians, the infirm and maternity cases, shall be respected and protected in the same manner as the hospitals provided for in Article 18, and shall be marked, with the consent of the State, by the display of the distinctive emblem provided for in Article 38 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of 12 August 1949.

Art. 23. Each High Contracting Party shall allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores and objects necessary for religious worship intended only for civilians of another High Contracting Party, even if the latter is its adversary. It shall likewise permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases.

Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (1977):

Article 50. The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.

Article 51. Indiscriminate attacks are... those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

Article 54. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

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     We are living at a time when the protection of the law is of utmost importance, both nationally and internationally, and when abrogation or dismissal of the law is an all-too-present temptation, based on circumstances which 'seem' to justify it. When the laws that free men live by are in danger, then not only democracy is in danger. Life is in danger. At this time, when the nuclear capacity of certain nations and the virulent hatred of some groups toward others are present to such a degree that they can cause grave harm at a moment's notice, it is all the more important that we hold fast to the principles that we have chosen to live by - principles that can move both a nation and a planet toward a new vision of hope, rather than toward a path of destruction.

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The purpose of Light Omega is to bring us all into greater planetary consciousness with awareness of the suffering of others and with a willingness to remain awake to the challenges, dangers, and possibilities we face today.

     Julie Redstone