Whoever it was that said "All's fair in love and war" only got it half right.
In the case of war, actually, many things are not fair. The rules of engagement during armed conflicts are strictly guided by a series of documents called the Geneva Conventions, which cover everything from the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians to the protection of important cultural sites and the environment.
The first of the five Geneva Conventions — named for the Swiss city in which they were signed — were established in 1864 by delegates from Europe, the United States, Asia and South America. The treaty was inspired by International Red Cross founder Henri Dunant's pamphlet "A Memory of Solferino," which described his shock at the lack of care given to wounded soldiers at the battle of Solferino, Italy, in 1859.
Though 16 governments signed the conventions in 1864, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden and the United States did not; the U.S. Congress finally ratified the conventions in 1882, making it the 32nd nation to sign on. More than 190 nations have signed onto the conventions to date, including Iraq.
The document established rules for the treatment of the wounded and prisoners of war. The original 10-article conventions pegged ambulances, hospitals and hospital staff as neutral and made provisions for health-care personnel to
continue tending to the sick during wartime without fear of attack by military personnel.
It set rules for the care of wounded soldiers, including safely transporting them out of the battle arena. The conventions also established the red cross as the universal symbol for neutrality for hospitals, ambulances and persons being evacuated from the battleground. Though governments are responsible for enforcing the law, the conventions give the Red Cross alone permission to carry out relief activities in armed conflicts.
The conventions were updated in 1906, 1929 and, most importantly, in 1949, following World War II. One of recent history's most graphic examples of flagrant disregard for the rules of war was the slaughter of 7 million Jews by the Nazi regime during World War II. The mass murder was the primary
impetus for the fourth Geneva Convention, which set out more explicit rules about the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians.
"The importance of these conventions is that they set the standards for humane behavior," said Lucy Brown, the senior advisor for International Humanitarian Law for the American Red Cross. "Over the last century, battlefields are not the only places where wars have been fought, and we've had more and more civilians being the major casualties at the hands of people
like Hitler, who had no respect for the lives of innocent civilians."
Among the provisions of the revised document are methods for identifying the dead and wounded and notifying their families. Prisoners of war are also guaranteed food, shelter and protection from harm or medical experimentation, and it is forbidden to publicly display the captured combatants in a way that is humiliating. (President Bush has said Iraq broke this rule when footage of captured coalition forces was aired on government-controlled Iraqi television.)
Other rules: innocent bystanders cannot be taken as hostages or mistreated based on race or ethnicity; safe passage must be given to food, water and humanitarian supplies; soldiers cannot destroy food, water installations, dams or crops vital to the survival of civilians; children under 15 may not be recruited into the armed forces; soldiers must be dressed in clearly distinguishable military uniforms; war correspondents are to be treated as civilians, and women and children are to be afforded the highest protection; weapons of mass destruction are prohibited; false surrender is forbidden; war planning must avoid destruction of civilian installations and nonmilitary areas.
The 1977 amendment further delineated the rules against attacking civilians, including a provision that prohibits attacking civilians even if combatants are hiding within their ranks, or the use of "human shields." Also included are rules to protect the environment against long-term damage.
There is no international police force in place to enforce the Geneva Conventions. Each nation that signs agrees to enforce its own violations and those of others. As an example, the U.S. Department of Defense has military laws that would bring charges against anyone in the military that commits a war crime. Those laws were in effect in 1971, when Lt. William Calley was put on trial for the murder of unarmed civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War.
Violations continue to occur. Recent war tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have focused on ethnic cleansing and genocide, including the ongoing trial of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic; both are being administered by the United Nations in the International Criminal Court at the Hague, the
world's first permanent war crimes court.
The U.S. administration has already said that it will vigorously pursue war crimes cases against everyone from Saddam Hussein to soldiers accused of using human shields following the war in Iraq. The administration openly objected over the weekend to what it said was the Iraqi regime's noncompliance with convention rules about allowing Red Cross workers to meet
with POWs. Brown said that while the Red Cross has not yet been granted access to the American POWs, it does not consider the Iraqi government to be in breach because there has been adequate contact with Iraqi authorities and the Red Cross expects to gain access soon.