60 years of the Geneva Conventions

August 10, 2009

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August 12th is the 60th anniversary of the day the Geneva Conventions came into force. Now, more than ever, they must be defended against those who would tamper with them.

In recent years, the US government has repeatedly asserted that the Geneva Conventions should be modified to take into account the novel threat posed by terrorism.

Reprieve strongly disputes this. The Conventions cover all those who might be caught up in armed conflict – whether an international conflict or an internal one; whether combatants or civilians; and whether they are legitimate soldiers or those committing war crimes.

The US position conflates armed conflict with criminal activities. Thus, if the US wants to treat an Al Qaeda suspect as a party to a military conflict, the US must respect the Conventions. If, on the other hand, the US does not want to respect the Conventions, then they have the option of treating the suspect as falling within the (arguably more sensible) parameters of the criminal law.

The danger of changing the rules for those labelled terrorists is obvious: every freedom fighter is initially labelled a terrorist by the authority that he challenges. This has recently been made clear in Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, and any number of other places.

Perhaps the only element of the Conventions that should be reconsidered are the protocols that govern the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which are not part of the substance of the Conventions. The ICRC is currently barred from making any public statement about prisoners, as a condition for its access.

As we have learned over the past eight years, there may come a time when those authorities who are holding prisoners refuse to ensure that none are victims of torture. Once internal avenues of redress have been exhausted, it is important that the ICRC be permitted to publicize evidence of torture in order to prevent it – as is legally required under the subsequent 1984 Convention Against Torture.

Reprieve’s director Clive Stafford Smith said:

“The Geneva Conventions are part of the fabric of international human rights law, and must be zealously protected. As we try to repair the damage caused by the excesses of the last eight years, the last thing we need is an assault on these precious agreements.

“If you want to know what the ‘modified terrorism Geneva Convention’ would be, you have to look no further than Guantánamo Bay – unlimited interrogation, secrecy, and incarceration without trial in a maximum security cell – in a word, everything that the Conventions prohibits. Indeed, I read the Conventions when I was in Guantánamo one time, and they are a checklist of everything that is wrong with the place.

“The notion that the senseless crimes committed by terrorists pose some kind of novel threat, never imagined in 1949, is simply hogwash. Governments faced with this kind of threat have a simple choice – they can call it a ‘war’, in which case they have to obey the Conventions; or they can call it a ‘crime’, in which case we have at least 800 years of experience in criminal law.”

See below for Reprieve’s ‘report card’, grading the compliance (or otherwise) of the facilty at Guantánamo with the Geneva Conventions.


For more information please contact Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office info@reprieve.org.uk .

Notes for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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