Thursday, January 06, 2005

Geneva Convention (Version 2.0)

With Senate confirmation hearings for Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales fast approaching, there has been much talk about his role in the War on Terror. Some have criticized Gonzales for having the audacity to suggest over the past few years, in his role as White House counsel, that the Geneva Convention, which was ratified by the United States on the eve of the Korean War, might be "obsolete" because it fails to address the modern realities of war and those who cause it. The above-mentioned critics have, in expected demagogic fashion, equated Gonzales' statements of obsoletism to be an endorsement of torture, since the public more or less reflexively associates the tenets of the Geneva Convention with prohibitions against torture.

In doing so, the critics show their inability to think critically, since the Geneva Convention deals with so much more than the do's and don't's of interrogation.

The original purpose of the Geneva Convention was to do what many thought (and still think) is impossible: to civilize warfare. Whether quixotic or not, its goal was to establish certain standards that would guarantee all nations respect other nations' sovereignty and the lives of their respective citizens. In addition to provisions defining "prisoner of war" (POW) and prohibiting torture of POWs, other provisions of the Geneva Convention specifically declare that POW status is to be afforded only to captured military personnel who are clearly and unequivocally affiliated with sovereign nations. Still other provisions make it clear that military personnel must display certain types of dress and behavior to be considered POWs.

Even a cursory review of the Geneva Convention's provisions makes it very clear that the treaty is based upon an outmoded assumption: namely, that only sovereign nations will be fighting wars. We learned all too clearly on September 11th that the new frontier in armed conflict will involve the flexibility necessary to engage global and regional non-governmental organizations that seek, through terror and violence, to achieve political agendas. We have learned since that the combatants of this new war will do anything to achieve their goals -- whether it be flying jetliners into civilian buildings, or violating universally recognized surrender rules during combat, or infiltrating military bases as civilian personnel and then detonating themselves in mess halls -- and that they present an unprecedented challenge.

The enemy is new. The tactics are revolutionary. Our responses to these threats must be equally new and revolutionary. I would submit that Gonzales was merely emphasizing the point that our approach to war and terrorism -- and our desire to end both -- require that we upgrade obsolete rules of engagement. As other memoranda from his office stressed, needed changes must recognize both the non-sovereign nature of future threats, including the potential for alliances between sovereign and terrorist organizations, and the need for new information collection techniques in a world where the so-called soldiers of radical Islam would rather commit glorious suicide than see their families again. (This latter aspect of the War on Terror is something that surely was not considered by the authors of the Geneva Convention.)

Without updating it to reflect our new reality, the Geneva Convention is all but useless.

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