The Economic Times / India Times, Mar. 31, 2003
Actually, there is more than one Geneva Convention, but the one referred to in the context of the current US-UK against Iraq is the convention that lays down how prisoners of war (POW) are to be treated by countries that are party to the convention. It defines who qualifies as a POW and what constitutes inhumane treatment (which is prohibited under the convention). This convention — formally called the “Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” was adopted by a conference held in Geneva from April 21 to August 12, 1949. The conference, dubbed the “Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War”, also adopted three other conventions applicable to civilians in war, to the sick and wounded in armed forces and to the sick and wounded in armed forces at sea. Collectively, these four conventions are today known simply as the Geneva Conventions. About 150 countries — including the US, the UK and Iraq — are signatories to these conventions. Thus, the vast majority of the countries in the world accept the Geneva Conventions, which are an attempt to ensure civilised norms of war, however absurd that notion might sound.
How did these conventions originate?
The history of the conventions is closely associated with that of the Red Cross. In fact, the very first Geneva Convention, which was adopted in 1864, was a result of international negotiations initiated by Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross. Known as the Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War, it provided for: a) immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers and their personnel, b) impartial treatment of all combatants, c) protection of civilians rendering aid to the wounded, and d) recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying those covered by the agreement. This convention was ratified within three years by all the European powers of the time and several other countries. The second Geneva Convention in 1906 further extended these provisions. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 extended the same principle to maritime warfare. The issue of how POWs were to be treated first figured in the third Geneva Convention of 1929. This convention provided for the protection of POWs stipulating that belligerents must treat prisoners humanely, supply information about them, and permit visits to prison camps by representatives of neutral states. During World War II, however, there were flagrant violations of these conventions, particularly by Nazi Germany and Japan. This is what gave rise to the need for a further convention codifying the principle of humane treatment more rigorously. This was done at an International Red Cross conference in Stockholm held in August, 1948, and the four conventions developed at this conference were, as we have seen earlier, formally adopted in Geneva on August 12, 1949. All these conventions came into force from October 21, 1950. The conventions apply even where war has formally not been declared, as for instance in the Korean War to which both China and the US were parties, though neither formally declared war on the other.
Have the conventions remained unchanged since 1949?
No. By the 1970s, it had become clear that a major portion of armed conflict in the world was left uncovered by the existing conventions. This was because the 1949 conventions had understandably not anticipated the wave of anti-colonial upsurges after the War. As a result, while the conventions applied to all armed conflicts between nation states, they were inadequate to deal with conflicts within nation states or between the coloniser and the colonised. This lacuna was corrected by two ‘protocols’ adopted in 1977 as additions to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Not surprisingly, only about half the signatories to the 1949 conventions have signed these protocols. The US and Iraq, for instance, are not signatories to the protocols, while the UK ratified them as recently as 1998, more than two decades after they were adopted.
Does the Iraqi broadcast of pictures of US POWs in the current war violate the relevant convention?
The US certainly believes — or at least argues — that it does, but the issue is open to debate with even some British commentators holding a contrary view. Ironically, the US treatment of prisoners taken during the “war against terrorism” in Afghanistan and its stand that the Geneva Conventions do not apply in this case has itself invited the censure of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.