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Dirty Little Wars and the Law: Did Osama bin Laden Win?

Posted on Monday 8/19/2019
David Crane

By David M. Crane

(Re-published from The Hill | Aug. 18, 2019) The past week marked the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. This laudable treaty, signed by every country, codified centuries of custom, treaties and protocols to protect individuals found on the battlefield. There are four articles to the Geneva Conventions protecting the wounded and sick, prisoners of war and civilians. This is an attempt to bring law and order onto the battlefield. These conventions are part of a larger set of treaties, protocols and rules called international humanitarian law, or the “laws of armed conflict.”

The Geneva Conventions were part of a promising four years after World War II that attempted to prevent the horrors of future conflict. The Nuremberg Principles were adopted, the United Nations Charter was signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention were created. These became the cornerstones to settle disputes peacefully and use force only as a last resort. The focus was on international peace and security.

Originally drafted to protect those found on the battlefield during international armed conflict, the protocols additionally drafted in 1976 brought in non-international armed conflict. The minimum standard under what is called “Common Article 3,” found in each of the four parts to the conventions and the additional protocols, is that regardless of status on the battlefield, everyone should be treated humanely. That remains the minimum today. Not maintaining this standard can be a war crime in and of itself. Essentially, any armed conflict is covered by the rule of law and those who break international humanitarian law are committing war crimes. 

For the past several decades, conflict has evolved from the vast industrial age conflicts, such as the World Wars and Operation Desert Storm, into the nuanced, kaleidoscopic conflicts of today. In these “dirty little wars,” the parties largely fail to follow the laws of armed conflict. There are no protections, particularly for civilians and even more importantly for women and children. The Geneva Conventions single them out to be especially protected; yet, one only has to look to the Syrian civil war to see that this key principle of law is ignored by all parties to that conflict. 

A majority of casualties in dirty little wars of the 21st century are civilians, a protected group under international law. Intentionally targeting civilians is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. Those who violate this principle are war criminals and remain so for the rest of their lives, since there is no statute of limitations for such crimes. By way of example, we still prosecute Nazi camp guards from World War II, all of whom now are in their 90s ...

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