Conventions to be no more?

At a time of year when we are invited to contemplate the rebirth of new life and hope, Defence Secretary John Reid's call for the Geneva Conventions to be dismantled struck a particularly jarring note.

At a time of year when we are invited to contemplate the rebirth of new life and hope, Defence Secretary John Reid's call for the Geneva Conventions to be dismantled struck a particularly jarring note.

It was last week that Reid made his comment that British soldiers are hamstrung by existing international law, and that the current provision was no longer suited to what was against 'barbaric terrorism'.

Looking at it in the long-term perspective, it seems that the Geneva Conventions, drawn up in 1949 by governments sickened by the atrocities of World War Two, was nothing more than a brief interlude in the age-old history of ruthless warfare.

If the enemy obeys no rules, as Reid suggests, must we also descend into all-out barbarism?


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Not that western troops seem to feel particularly hampered by conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war or their obligations to civilians during the occupation of another state.

Amnesty International is calling for a public inquiry into CIA 'extraordinary rendition' flights, claiming that detainees have been abducted and spirited away to secret locations for interrogation under torture.

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The number of soldiers absconding from the British army is said to have trebled since the invasion of Iraq. I hear that a bill which proposes life imprisonment for any soldier who tries to avoid serving in a "military occupation of a foreign country or territory" is going through Parliament. Troublesome conscientious objections to the possibly illegal nature of the war and occupation are to be swatted aside.

Last week an inquest jury decided that a British TV journalist was murdered when he was shot by an Israeli soldier in Gaza. The soldier concerned will probably not be brought to trial, after an Israeli investigation decided there was no basis for proceedings under criminal law.

Although iconoclasts like Reid argue that the Geneva Conventions cannot be applied to an underground army of terrorist cells, the real problem for the British and American governments is that they can. Combatants who are not part of a uniformed force should be classified as soldiers, who should be held as prisoners of war, or as criminals to be tried through the courts.

Reid, Rumsfeld et al seem to be trying to create a third category - 'evil-doers' who can be summarily dealt with outside the rules of law and civilised society. If they are bad, then we can be badder.

The trouble with this approach - even if you accept the morality of it - is that it feeds the very hatred and indignation which led to conflict in the first place.

American and British forces stormed into Iraq on the pretext of bringing freedom and democracy to the people. If we are seen to be kicking seven bells out of protesters, torturing and humiliating detainees and trying hard to unseat the democratically elected Prime Minister , Ibrahim Jafari, we lose whatever pretensions we had to the moral high ground, and invite revenge attacks.

And if our soldiers are captured, we may want them to have protection of the Geneva Conventions rather than receive the treatment we have meted out to others.

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