Can war be fair? - 50 years after Geneva

World leaders established rules governing modern warfare on Aug. 12, 1949. Do they help?

For critics who decry the Geneva Conventions as outdated and irrelevant, the war in Kosovo offered no shortage of evidence. The Serbs' frenzy of ethnic cleansing seemed to spit in the face of treaties that seek to set humane limits to modern warfare.

Once again, the conventions appeared to be more honored in the breach than in the observance.

But seen from another perspective, it was the Serbian violations of the rules of war that prompted NATO's bombing campaign. The manner in which Serb soldiers massacred ethnic Albanian civilians in their campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army's separatist guerrillas was a major factor in the West's decision to go to war.

In fact, Kosovo highlights the contradictions that bedevil the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Geneva-based guardians of humanitarian law, as it seeks to ingrain international respect for a warrior's code of conduct.

On the one hand, today's ragged wars have gotten messier, more ambiguous, and less controllable than they were 50 years ago, when hierarchical armies of uniformed soldiers faced off. On the other, the world still feels the need to draw a line between war and slaughter, to set limits on human behavior in the heat of battle.

The men and women trying to hold that line, ICRC delegates in crisis spots worldwide, walk a tightrope between pessimism and optimism. War is inevitable: That is the black assumption on which the Geneva Conventions are based. But the treaties are infused with the faith that man can check his baser instincts.

"In the middle of the heat, we have to believe that people are people, capable of good" says Edith Baeriswyl, who runs the ICRC's programs to explain its work. "If they were beasts, we could do nothing."

Maintaining that belief is not always easy. Although the West generally embraces the standards set forth in the accords, much of the rest of the world does not comply. The savagery of the genocide in Rwanda and of more recent wars in Africa, or the horrific concentration camps into which Bosnian men were herded, might sow doubts in many minds.

Those tragedies have pointed up some of the problems the ICRC faces. In many parts of the world, people are simply ignorant of international humanitarian law. In some places, combatants reject the Geneva Conventions as an expression of Western Christian values they do not share. In others, the rules carry little weight because they are so often violated.

"There is a general image of the law as cooked up in Geneva, remote from actuality, and soldiers' reality", says Adam Roberts, a law expert at Oxford University in England. "That is very harmful."

ICRC officials - whose mandate is to train armed forces to respect international humanitarian law - are battling that impression. They are conducting a search on all five continents for local versions of the conventions, with roots in local practice, to show that the Geneva Conventions are merely a universal expression of rules that everybody knows he should obey.

So in Moscow, ICRC officials illustrate their talks to Russian soldiers with historical quotations from Russian military leaders. It was not the Geneva Conventions but Catherine the Great's top General, Alexander Suvorov, who ordered in 1776 that "...prisoners should be treated in a humane way, barbarity is a disgrace."

In Guatemala, Red Cross workers have prepared radio programs, articles, and talks that highlight the shared values common to international humanitarian law and indigenous Mayan law and culture.

In Somalia, ICRC-funded theater groups performed plays for militiamen conveying a humanitarian message that stems from Somali warrior tradition.

"We should try to build bridges between international humanitarian law, which in many countries is seen as pretty alien, and local traditions and customs," says Marion Harroff-Tavel, an ICRC official.

ICRC trainers are also seeking to get their message to children before they become militiamen, rallying popular African singers to promote the cause for example. "We would like to create a reflex knowledge of the rules", says Ms. Harroff-Tavel. "It's only one element in your behavior on the battlefield, but it's a positive element."

At the other end of the scale, ICRC lobbyists worked hard to give teeth to a new International Criminal Court, set up last year in Rome, that will try war crimes in the future. Though the governments that signed the Geneva Conventions in 1949 pledged to hunt down and try alleged war criminals, they have not done so.

The United Nations, in fact, opted not to codify the Conventions "with a condescending dismissal of the enterprise," writes Roy Gutman in the recently released, "Crimes of War:What the Public Should Know." Mr. Gutman points out that the UN International Law Commission at the time explained that, "War having been outlawed, the regulation of its conduct has ceased to be relevant."

And the ICRC itself has come under criticism for refusing to turn over evidence that would help prosecute war criminals.

Part of the problem is its unique role. It is not only responsible for visiting and registering prisoners of war, but for delivering humanitarian aid and arranging prisoner exchanges and releases of hostages.

"The question is, whether the ICRC should speak out - and risk losing access to victims - or keep silent and become complicit in evil," writes Michael Ignatieff in "Crimes of War." He goes on to say that "through most of history the ICRC has chosen to remain publicly silent," while trying to influence governments privately.

The lack of enforcement mechanisms has undermined the conventions, though the UN's ad hoc tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia point the way forward, say humanitarian law experts.

But knowing the law is not always enough. And "In the midst of battle, the threat of legal action is remote," Professor Roberts points out.

"We know how to talk to people's brains ... their hearts. But how do we talk to their guts" when they are maddened by fear or revenge or anger in the middle of combat? asks Ms. Baeriswyl.

As the organization ponders such questions, delegates say that the sweeping goals of the Geneva Conventions often come down in practice to more modest achievements. In Zaire in 1994, recalls delegate Bernard Levrat, "if you managed to convince a soldier of the difference between a combatant and a noncombatant, that was tremendous. If on top of that you could convince him not to kill a wounded prisoner on the spot, that was perfect."

In fact in 1995, one man in eastern Zaire approached Mr. Levrat and thanked him. He told him that fighters had captured him when he was hiding in the hills during the Rwanda genocide, but they didn't kill him "because the Red Cross had told them not to kill old people."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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