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 marked 60 years yesterday, 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 US, 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 US 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 UN 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 US], fail to agree upon needed measures to protect civilians and effectively implement the Conventions, though all have recognised their responsibility to protect."
Thursday, August 13, 2009
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