The Silent Witness Speaks Out

JONATHAN POWER

August 27, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

GENEVA — Geneva. -- Remember the balmy days of the Geneva Conventions? Wonderful, adventurous tales of intrigue by British prisoners-of-war in German camps: While pretending to improve their physiques in the exercise yard, they were tunneling to escape beneath the vaulting horse.

Life in the camp was certainly austere, but at least the prisoners got three meals a day, Red Cross-delivered letters and parcels at regular intervals and, under the strict letter of the Geneva Conventions, their weekly allowance of tobacco.

If the Geneva Conventions were renegotiated today, certainly tobacco would be out. But what else might be tossed overboard? Two and a half hours spent with Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the initiator of the Geneva Conventions, is a sobering experience.

''We've never seen such savagery as we see today,'' opines this genial, overworked leader of the world's largest and most significant private humanitarian organization. ''Perhaps it is because we -- and the media -- have much more access to the eye of the storm than previous generations. But I think it's more than that -- civilian populations are more frequently the hostages of warlords and the main target of their opponents. I also am convinced that there are more acts of sexual violence, directed in particular at women and children. The fact is in some cases the Geneva Conventions might as well not exist.''

Betraying my own chauvinism, I asked why the ''good guys,'' -- the likes of Switzerland, America and Britain -- don't do more to support the Geneva Conventions.

''There are no 'good guys','' he retorted, ''We only have bad guys. They don't take on their responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions. Look, for a start, at the arms trade, enabling others to make war.''

As the official monitor of the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross asked the Swiss government to convene here Monday an International Conference for the Protection of War Victims. Every member of the U.N. has been invited, together with observers ranging from the U.N. Secretary General's office to the Federal ,, Republic of Yugoslavia to the Palestine Liberation Organization to Amnesty International.

The first Geneva Convention, signed in 1864, marked the beginning of international humanitarian law, obliging governments to rescue and care for wounded and sick soldiers, irrespective of party. Medical personnel and equipment are to be respected by all sides, and identified by the distinctive emblem of a red cross on a white background.

After the Second World War, the conventions were brought up to date and have been ratified by 181 countries. In 1977, plenipotentiaries of 102 states adopted additional protocols to further protect civilians against the effects of hostilities. Most countries have ratified these, too, but three prominent members of the Security Council have not -- the United States, France and Britain.

To bring pressure on these three is one objective of the conference. The other, as Mr. Sommaruga describes it, is ''to put electricity into a system that is already wired.'' For him it means countries should reaffirm publicly their abhorrence of the massacre of civilians and the torturing of detainees. It means punishing war criminals -- the recent decision to constitute a war-crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a first step. Not least, it means restricting the arms trade.

It is a sign of our times that the Red Cross, after a hundred or more years as an unobtrusive and self- effacing servant of the international community, has decided to speak out more. Silent witness in war zones and disaster areas, unarmed and unprotected, seems not to be enough. Governments negotiate the Geneva Conventions and their protocols into being and then invent legalisms justifying noncompliance with them.

International humanitarian law exists not just to soften the rough edges of war, but to make us understand that there is an alternative human spirit to the warrior instinct. War has never been civilized, and no one can make it so. But we can restrain some of its more degrading impulses and make something of our own capacity for virtue.

That exercise in itself may make us less prone to have recourse to war when things go wrong. Getting the urge to do battle out of our bloodstream is the work of centuries. But reaffirming the Geneva Conventions and their protocols here in Geneva next week is as good a way as any to take a step toward that goal.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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