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Geneva Conventions Apply Even in Afghanistan -- ICRC

by Richard Waddington, Reuters, 28 November 2001


GENEVA -- The Red Cross stressed Friday that the Geneva Conventions must apply even in Afghanistan, awash with reports of massacres of prisoners.

The Conventions, drawn up in the aftermath of World War Two to protect civilians and guarantee the rights of soldiers who surrender, mainly deal with international conflicts involving two or more states, rather than civil wars like Afghanistan's.

But article three in all four Conventions -- the other two cover treatment of those wounded in war on both land and sea -- lays down a minimum code of conduct for all states which signed the 1949 treaties. Afghanistan ratified them in 1956.

Among actions ruled as unacceptable in any war are summary executions, murder and torture.

"Article three applies to anybody -- the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, al Qaeda, anybody fighting in the territory," said Catherine Deman, legal adviser to the legal division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

As the Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. air power, continues to advance against the former ruling Taliban, there have been mounting allegations of abuses, including the summary executions of prisoners.

The human rights group Amnesty International called on Wednesday for an inquiry into the killings of hundreds in northern Afghanistan after a rebellion of Taliban prisoners. ICRC officials in Kabul said they were in talks about helping bury the dead.

Friday, a senior anti-Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan said his forces had executed 160 Taliban troops last week. U.S. military officials witnessed the killings, which were carried out by machinegun, he added.


The Swiss-based ICRC refuses to comment on individual incidents, preferring to use its influence behind the scenes. But shootings such as that confessed to by the commander would constitute a clear violation of article three.

While the Conventions run to several pages, going into detail, for example, on what food prisoners of war should get, article three offers basic rules on what is forbidden in warfare.

It states that murder, cruelty and torture, the taking of hostages and "outrages" against personal dignity in the form of particularly humiliating and degrading treatment, are prohibited.

Any combatant laying down his arms should be treated "humanely." It is forbidden to execute anyone without a trial that gives all the "guarantees recognized by civilized peoples."

"It is the same in the Afghan mountains as it would be in Rwanda, Iraq or anywhere else. Article three is the minimum standard," Deman told Reuters in an interview.


For the United States, which has put troops on the ground in Afghanistan some seven weeks after launching a fierce aerial bombing campaign, the bar was set higher, she said.

Washington was morally obliged to abide by the full terms of the Conventions even though it was possible to make a legal argument for them not being completely applicable.

The legal position is obscured by the fact the Taliban were never recognized by most countries as a rightful government and have lost control of most of Afghanistan.

"We say -- respect them anyway regardless of the exact legal status," she said.

American officials have said they would rather see bin Laden dead than taken alive. But article three bars the United States from ordering him killed, Deman said.

"If somebody refuses to surrender, then he remains a military target. But if it is an unconditional surrender, it has to be accepted," she said.

© 2001 Reuters
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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