Geneva Unconventions

The United States is reviewing whether to change the legal status of captured Taliban fighters from "unlawful combatants" to "prisoners of war." To do so would help end a legal tempest over whether the US has flouted international rules of war.

But will that really be the end of it?

It shouldn't. The US, along with the body watching over the Geneva Conventions - the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - now needs to ask whether it's time to change 20th-century rules of war between states to fit a 21st-century campaign against stateless terrorists.

The Pentagon was trying to defend Americans when it left the captured Taliban soldiers (and members of Al Qaeda fighting with them) in legal limbo. That way they could easily be questioned for information that may stop more terrorist acts. Once they are given POW status under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the US is constrained in interrogating them or holding them separate from one another.

Treating them as POWs implies the Taliban represented a state recognized by the international community. It didn't have such status. Nor did the Taliban make itself a party to the Geneva Conventions.

And its rulers had sold out their regime to the non-Afghan Al Qaeda organization and the millions of dollars from Osama bin Laden in a global terrorism campaign. The Taliban had thus joined a gang of international war criminals, placing them outside the bounds of the Geneva Convention, or at least in legal limbo.

Just the same, the Pentagon was neglectful in letting its allies in on this legal and moral reasoning, creating an international hew and cry that the US once again was being a unilateralist bully making up its own rules.

And by not explaining its logic, the US has left the impression that its own soldiers can be treated this way in future conflicts. That may put GIs in danger if an enemy too loosely interprets the Fourth Convention.

The ICRC, too, flouted its own rules by publically criticizing the US. Such actions jeopardize its ability to work quietly with governments in fulfilling the Geneva rules.

To remain an impartial player, the ICRC should begin an international dialogue on whether to alter the conventions in the face of a wholly new style of war, one in which suicidal warriors use commercial airplanes as battlefields, treat civilians as war targets, and regard international rules as infidel heresy.

Trying to fit the captured Taliban into the Geneva rules is only a temporary step until those rules can be rewritten. In the meantime, the US has to bend to international opinion to keep its antiterrorism alliance together and protect its own soldiers.

The ICRC has its work cut out for it, and not just with the US. Just a decade ago, its officials met with a group of former Soviet generals and found out that they had never even heard of the Geneva Conventions. Much of the world probably hasn't, either. Keeping the conventions relevant will make them better honored.

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