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Geneva Conventions under scrutiny

American treatment of Afghan combatants has raised questions about prisoner rights

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland is reconsidering the Geneva conventions according to American media reports.

The Swiss authorities have confirmed they have asked academics to review the Conventions in light of recent events.

The "Washington Post" wrote on Friday that the Swiss government had taken the initiative of looking into whether the 53-year-old Conventions needed upgrading.

The Swiss ambassador in Washington, Christian Blickenstorfer, disclosed the initiative to journalists on Monday, saying that "some people felt there was some deficiency in the Geneva Conventions" after September 11 and the war in Afghanistan.

He added that the Swiss authorities felt they should look into whether there should be new interpretations.

Bern has confirmed it has asked Harvard University's Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research to look into the issue.

Updating humanitarian law

Muriel Berset Kohen, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, said the American institute has been asked to "identify potential legal and practical issues raised about the implementation of the Geneva Conventions."

The Post made particular reference to the dispositions governing the treatment of prisoners of war, and whether they should be updated or reinterpreted given the dilemmas that have arisen with terrorism.

Berset Kohen told swissinfo that Switzerland's initiative went further than this though. "We want to know if international humanitarian law takes into account all types of conflict, and especially armed combatants not linked to a state," she said.

She added that Switzerland must, as depositary of the Conventions, promote their respect in all circumstances. The Swiss authorities must therefore examine whether current law is sufficient, or must be developed further.

The Harvard institute's mandate allows it carry out informal discussions with governments and independent experts to develop a "research agenda."

The Swiss consider the initiative as an open-ended inquiry, and nobody is prepared to second-guess its results. The researchers mandate could be extended if necessary.

Sensitive issue

The issue, which has been sensitive over the last few months, will probably not be taken up by the next conference of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent at the end of 2003.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been however calls to revise parts of the Geneva Conventions.

During the debate surrounding the detention of Afghan combatants held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, some American leaders went as far as saying that international law was outdated in such cases.

Swiss diplomats have always answered this criticism by stating that humanitarian law represented a strict minimum that had to be respected.

Switzerland is not prepared to give way on humanitarian law, but is attempting to find better ways of applying it. "There are differing interests on this issue, but the Swiss authorities know exactly what they want," said Berset Kohen.

swissinfo, Bernard Weissbrodt in Geneva

Key facts

The current Geneva Conventions are 53 years old.
Calls have been made to review them.
A Harvard institute has been mandated by the Swiss to identify issues surrounding humanitarian law.

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