Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Geneva Convention

My understanding of the Geneva Convention is that you give up any protection you have under it if you dress like a civilian and hide amongst civilian populations. This is designed to save civilian lives by keep the lines between civilians and soldiers distinct. A soldier who dresses like a civilian and hides amongst civilians is no longer a soldier -- he is an "unlawful combatant" and has no Geneva Convention rights. (There are other things you can do to not have protection. I beleive there was also a rather good New Yorker article that made this same point). Here is an excerpt from USS Clueless that makes the point very clearly:
The provision regarding lack of uniforms is one of the more important exceptions. The basic idea of requiring formal insignia for combatants is to make it so that the soldiers of each side can differentiate enemy combatants from enemy non-combatants. If the soldiers of one side cannot easily determine whether someone on the other side is soldier or civilian, then there's a much greater likelihood that civilians will be killed. One of the things that those who composed the treaty wanted to try to do was to reduce the slaughter of civilians in war.

Therefore, if an enemy combatant is captured and is not wearing any recognizable insignia or uniform, he is not entitled to any protection at all under the Geneva Convention. He can be executed on the spot without trial, for instance. He is considered to be committing a war crime by fighting without any such insignia, but if he's executed then those who order the execution and those who carry it out are not committing a war crime.

That provision regarding combatants without insignia applies to three major cases: to insurgents (such as to guerrilla action in occupied areas), to soldiers trying to hide among civilians during formal combat, and to spies. The argument for not rewarding each of these cases is the same and is valid; if you grant them protection anyway, you will encourage more of all three with tragic consequences.

Therefore, I'm not sure I understand the point that Alan Dershowitz is making in this article. He seems to argue that the Geneva Convention should be re-written so it no longer protects terrorists hiding amongst civilians, but it doesn't do that now. He also says that
Terrorists who do not care about the laws of warfare target innocent noncombatants. Indeed, their goal is to maximize the number of deaths and injuries among the most vulnerable civilians, such as children, women and the elderly.
But targeting innocent noncombatants was certainly part of WWII where submarines attacked merchant vessels, and airforces bombed factories, cities, and infrastructure. Neither the Rape of Nanking nor the firebombing of Dresden targeted armies.

It is certainly true that people invoke the Geneva Convention as a kind of "be nice to people!" imperitive in ways that directly hamper the fight against terrorists--thus making us all less safe--but this is not a fault of the Convention, it's a fault of people interpreting it incorrectly. It is rare that one finds a bureaucratic document that is fundamentally sensible, so let's take the time to understand why it says what it says, and make it clear to those who dress like civilians but are combatants that they forgo any rights they might have because they are no longer soldiers. Instead of re-writing a good document, let's make folks understand what is says and why it says it--it's clearly written by people who understand the horrors of war all too well.


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