The 1864 Geneva Convention pledged aid for all sick and wounded soldiers regardless of nationality, and recognized the neutrality of any transport or personnel displaying the Red Cross emblem. However, recent discussions regarding Iraq most often refer to the decisions that were made at the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, along with the Hague Convention of 1954 and the United Nations Convention of 1977. At this point in history, 192 states in the world (191 of which are members of the UN) have ratified these four Geneva Conventions.
Under the Conventions, key distinctions were made between soldiers, civilians, medical and religious personnel, and mercenaries. Combatants must wear uniforms and carry their weapons openly to distinguish themselves from civilians. Medical and religious personnel are considered noncombatants; mercenaries (paid to fight on one side or the other), along with anyone who does not follow these guidelines of combatant distinction, are not protected by the Conventions.
Without going further, we can see these guidelines broken in Iraq. Not only are most combatants fighting the U.S. coalition not from identifiable uniformed military, but they purposefully blend themselves in with the civilian population to avoid detection as part of their hit-and-run method of attack. According to the Conventions, actions such as these should disqualify these forces from any humanitarian protection.
In contrast, the United States finds itself in an delicate position. Not only do the Conventions prohibit ‘indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present’ but the Hague Convention also protects cultural property.
So, as Marines stand by in Ramadi wondering how they are going to respectfully capture insurgents who are hiding in centuries-old mosques and shooting from holes in the woodwork, these same insurgent groups are recruiting children under 15 years of age, targeting and inhumanely detaining journalists, and using civilians as human shields, all in direct defiance of the latest Convention guidelines.
When engaged combatants are following no such international agreements while the United States attempts to heed the concerns of rights groups around the globe, something has gone terribly wrong with the expectations of Geneva. It appears that any short-lived, post-World War II mentalities regarding self-limitation were quickly abandoned in many corners of the world. Those states that strictly follow humanitarian guidelines are the nations that would seemingly pursue self-regulation, anyway. Now, even as globalization becomes the philosophy of the day, different cultural attitudes toward war play a key part in this escalating defiance of the Conventions since more and more cross-cultural conflicts continue to occur in this ‘war on terrorism.’
Under the Geneva Conventions, Iraqi prisoners are offered a daily shower, a padded mattress and bedding and three hot meals a day, among many other comforts.
The prisoners at Abu Ghraib, however, in accordance with their culture, refuse to shower, refuse mattresses and instead sleep on the hard floor, and only accept two meals per day. With the constant tossing around of Geneva at every criticizing opportunity, it is hard to know that Geneva itself has many shortcomings, out of the control of U.S. soldiers.
Yet because the Conventions are the only international humanitarian standard of the day, U.S. forces are judged by them even as they are in desperate need of updating. Among crucial issues that have received little attention is the lack of protocol for ‘terrorist’ prisoners of war, and the yet unaddressed treatment of foreign contractors inside war zones.
In this way, the ‘war on terrorism’ is less about Geneva and more about dynamic, logical standards of humanitarian treatment, of which, believe it or not, the United States has comparatively very high standards.
Perhaps the world would like one more revised document to take terrorism into account, but this new war is less about signatures and agreements from heads of state, and more about situational analyses as different enemies emerge at different times and in different ways.
With enemy combatants becoming increasingly synonymous with civilian organizations, it frankly doesn’t matter anymore what states have signed the Geneva Conventions, since states are not the ones that are attacking us. In trying to prevent injustice, Geneva itself ultimately generalizes the values, habits and attitudes of every culture of the world.
Jesse Nickles is a second-year international studies major.