Working for more civilized wars


Rights: The International Committee of the Red Cross tries to raise awareness of the rules of civilized conflict and the combatants that ignore them.

May 31, 1999|By Kurt Shillinger | Kurt Shillinger,BOSTON GLOBE

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Genocide. Torture. Rape of civilians. Forced removals of whole populations.

Horrors like these aren't supposed to happen anymore.

Since the end of World War II, the international community has adopted an ever-growing canon of principles to govern combat and protect civilians from abuses by governments -- their own or those of others. There are 374 conventions that deal with 25 categories of international, humanitarian and criminal law, from drug trafficking to the torture of political prisoners.

Yet the past half-century has witnessed, according to one study, more than 250 conflicts that have claimed as many as 170 million lives. Kosovo is but the latest on a long list of tragedies; the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, brutal repression in Chile and South Africa, the massacre at My Lai are among the many more.

So have these laws of civilized conflict done any good? And is there any way to make them more effective?

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Conventions -- the cornerstones of international humanitarian law -- the International Committee of the Red Cross is attempting to increase awareness of the rules of war and to mobilize public pressure against states and combatants that disobey them.

Its "People on War" study examines a dozen countries affected by war, and six others at peace. In El Salvador and Somalia, Georgia and the Philippines and elsewhere, the project has assembled focus groups of either soldiers or civilians to relate their experiences of war, state repression and other violence. To encourage a frank exchange, participants' names were kept confidential.

"There is a fair awareness of at least the spirit of the Geneva Conventions," says Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the Red Cross study. "People do see that the `rules of war' were designed to assist them. There is, of course, some element of doubt as to their efficiency -- especially in places like Bosnia."

International humanitarian law covers armed conflict, genocide and crimes against humanity. Enacted on Aug. 12, 1949, the original four Geneva Conventions and subsequent protocols seek to limit suffering in time of war. Some 188 countries are now party to the codes, which bind them to safeguard wounded armed forces on land or at sea, prisoners of war and civilians.

New laws are added from time to time. Earlier this month, parties to the 1997 Land Mine Ban Treaty convened their first meeting to review its implementation in Maputo, Mozambique. The treaty has been signed by 135 nations, but not the United States.

The United States has signed few of the major conventions, according to Makau Mutua, a visiting professor of international law at Harvard University. "The U.S.," he says, "has the worst record for ratifying international human-rights agreements."

Leaving aside U.S. reluctance to participate, why have such laws not resulted in a safer world?

A major reason is the weakness of the enforcement mechanisms. The 6-year-old International Tribunal on war crimes in The Hague and last year's treaty creating an International Criminal Court represent the first real mechanisms to enforce compliance.

Cherif Bassiouni, a scholar on humanitarian law at DePaul University, notes that governments apply the rules of war differently depending on who the adversary is, and rebel movements often don't observe them at all.

"Militaries have a strong incentive to comply with the Geneva Conventions if they confront another military. They have a mutual interest," says Bassiouni. But armed conflict is increasingly a domestic phenomenon, resulting in a "complete breakdown of such laws in these situations."

When that happens, national militaries and police forces end up warring against their own people rather than protecting them. And insurgents, expecting no mercy at the hands of the state, feel little imperative to practice higher principles.

At a Red Cross focus group on Robben Island, the subject was whether it is possible to adhere to humanitarian principles while fighting an enemy that blatantly disregards them. The apartheid system "was a crime against humanity, and we needed to crush the system," Lucky Twala, a former urban saboteur with the African National Congress' military wing, told the group.

"The struggle was guilty of excesses," Twala said. "But to say that the ANC violated human rights is too sweeping: It fails to account for the pressures we faced. The apartheid system never inculcated humanitarian principles on that side."

But the boundaries of acceptable conduct in war can look just as blurred from the other side. Soldiers in a focus group held in Bosnia told of civilians who became participants in conflict. A villager led a group of enemy soldiers into an ambush in which six of them were killed. For the soldier telling the story, the civilian's action made him a legitimate target.

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