Editorial: Ignoring The Geneva Conventions

By Becky O’Malley
Friday July 21, 2006

It seems simplistic, but let’s just go over it one more time. Until the time of the First World War, it was an accepted shared belief, at least among the “civilized” (European-influenced) countries that deliberately killing non-combatants (“civilians”) was an immoral way to conduct a war, even a “just” war. This is a topic that necessarily requires quotation marks, since even supposedly shared beliefs are questioned by some.  

The Geneva Conventions began in the middle of the 19th century, just about the time the industrial revolution’s modern technology was providing the means for weapons which could kill many people at once. 

World War I saw the widespread entry into the calculus of weapons of mass destruction, including airplanes, heavy explosives, powerful guns and poison gas. These made killing of a certain number of non-combatants hard to avoid, so a rationale was developed among certain “civilized people” to justify these deaths. During the Spanish Civil War, planes bombed civilians on a wide scale for the first time. Bombing of populated areas without regard for the safety of non-combatants became accepted practice for both sides in World War II. In 1949, the Fourth Geneva Convention attempted to set some boundaries for the practice. 

The Society of Professional Journalists provides a handy guide for understanding the complexities of the Geneva Conventions. Its summary of the International Rules about Civilians derived from both the fourth Geneva Convention and the two Additional Protocols includes these points: 

• “Civilians are not to be subject to attack. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.” 

• “There is to be no destruction of property unless justified by military necessity.” 

It’s clear that the now-common technique of suicide bombers setting off heavy explosives in the midst of civilian crowds violates both the rules laid down by the Geneva Conventions and accepted moral beliefs of earlier centuries. This has not deterred many small groups of extremists, such as the IRA, the Zionist Stern gang, or contemporary Muslim-oriented terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Some supporters of the causes espoused by such bombers claim that terrorism of this type is the last resort of the powerless who have no armies at their disposal, but to most “civilized” people the immorality of deliberately killing non-combatants is obvious.  

In this context, it comes as no surprise that few voices in the international community have been raised to defend the current campaign of the state of Israel in Lebanon. Some say that it’s even worse than terrorism, which is generally the act of a deranged individual or a member of a small undemocratic faction. It’s true that eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two more taken prisoner by a terrorist group which has been tolerated in southern Lebanon by a weak central government, but is that justification for “indiscriminate attacks on areas where civilians are present” resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths? Or for widespread destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure with no clear military objective? Most of the world is saying no. 

Israel is a democratically governed modern national state, as is the United States. In theory, that might seem to make the citizens of Israel responsible for the actions of its government, though as citizens of the United States we know that nothing’s that simple, as we contemplate the Iraq mess. Many citizens of both countries now condemn recent acts of their leaders but are powerless to stop them. But world opinion would quickly condemn any country possessed of weapons of mass destruction which targeted apartment buildings and bridges and highways and water tanks in the U.S. or Israel because it disapproved of the actions of either government.  

The rules of war as laid down in the successive Geneva Conventions are really an attempt to preserve the use of force as an instrument of national policy where absolutely necessary. When countries like the United States and Israel openly defy such rules they become outlaws, losing allies who might otherwise have supported their goals in an orderly military action. A well-targeted ground campaign aimed at seeking out the actual terrorist combatants operating out of Lebanon might have garnered a measure of support, but deliberate Israeli government attacks on areas in Lebanon where civilians are known to be present are destroying any claims the state of Israel might have to the legitimacy of its pursuit of the Hezbollah terrorists. The fact that Hezbollah is continuing its terrorist activities by firing rockets at Israeli citizens doesn’t change anything. Both parties to this conflict are in the wrong—neither can claim the moral high ground.