Thursday, May 26, 2005

Deterrence, Game Theory, and the Geneva Conventions

Most laws exist to thwart people's natural inclinations, usually with the threat of punishment. You want something, but if you take it (ie. steal it) you will go to gaol.

The Geneva Conventions are not like that (as detailed in this excellent thread -- be sure to read through the comments). Firstly, it is not like that because there is no enforcement mechanism beyond the parties in conflict. Groups like the International whatever Court are not an enforcement mechanism because they have no coercive power. The Geneva Conventions are not like a Law because there is no police.

Instead, the Geneva Conventions are like a game theory rule set, designed to lay down mutually beneficial parameters for combat, along with escalation threats to act as the deterrent. If you are not a Geneva Convention signatory, your opponent is not bound by the rules either. If you are a signatory but break the rules, your opponent can break the rules as well. This gives every party and incentive to 1) become a signatory and 2) play by the rules. The alternative (ie. the Conventions always apply) while seeming stronger actually undermine them by reducing the incentive to sign-up in the first place.

Moreover, it's worth realizing that the Conventions are playing the "protect civilians" game. It does this by endangering combatants who endanger civilians by hiding amongst them. Civilians are protected under the Conventions. Soldiers are protected under the Conventions (under POW status). Fighters who hide amongst civilians (by not wearing uniforms, by not bearing arms openly, etc.) are "unlawful combatants" and so are not covered by Geneva Conventions. These rules recognize that 1) fighters will fight, 2) civilians will accidentally be killed, and 3) it is good to try and limit the number of accidental civilian deaths.

Again, the incentives are set appropriately, and it is up to combatants to decide whether the tactical advantage offered by hiding amongst civilians is worth the disadvantage of losing POW protections. But extending POW protections to unlawful combatants undermines the civilian protections upheld by the Geneva Conventions by reducing the deterrent for fighters to hide amongst civilians.

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