Toothless at 60

The Geneva Conventions have turned 60. Born out of the horrors of World War II, the Geneva Conventions laid down the standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of victims of war. They were aimed at upholding human life and dignity even in the midst of violent conflict. Three existing conventions, which relate to the treatment of prisoners of war and immunity of medical personnel on the battlefield were extensively revised. A fourth, which requires warring parties to protect civilians was added. Together they formed the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which have since received the ratification of all countries; 194 governments have signed on agreeing to be bound by its provisions. Sadly, the commitment of a majority of state parties to the Geneva Conventions has been on largely on paper and they have shown it little respect.

The large number of civilian deaths in wars fought since the Geneva Conventions came into being is ample evidence that they have failed to protect civilians from the horrors of war. The ratio of soldiers to civilians killed was 10 to one in World War I. Today the ratio is 10 civilians killed for every solder. Civilians are bearing the brunt of war. This is in part because increasingly wars are being fought not at the border but within countries and communities. Wars are fought not between identifiable, formal armies only but among a variety of armed groups. Besides, some governments show few inhibitions about aerial bombing of populated areas or using cluster bombs. Countries like the US, UK and Israel claim that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the war on terror or treatment of terror suspects.

Some say the Geneva Conventions are irrelevant, that they are no longer suited for the kind of wars that are being waged today. It is true that some definitions and stipulations in the Conventions need greater clarity. Their flaws lie not so much in their content as in the weak commitment of the signatories. If countries are getting away with brazen violation of the Geneva Conventions this is because enforcement is weak. The international justice system has been one-sided and discriminatory, punishing only weaker countries for non-compliance. Holding powerful countries accountable by prosecuting their leaders will send out a clear message to all that no country or armed group is above international law.

Liked the story?

  • 0

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry