Rules of war come under scrutiny

Should US Army medics speak out about possible abuse of Guantanamo Bay detainees? Keystone

Senior military officers from 27 countries have been urged to ensure international humanitarian law is observed during armed conflicts.

This content was published on September 1, 2003 - 17:17

They were attending a meeting in Switzerland which highlighted the ethical dilemmas faced by army doctors around the world, whether treating suicide bombers or the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

It is the fifth such event hosted and paid for by the Swiss government as part of its commitment to maintaining the country’s humanitarian tradition.

Switzerland is the depository state of the Geneva Conventions, which set out a comprehensive list of how soldiers should behave, both on and off the battlefield.

Colonel Hans Baer, senior medical officer with the Swiss army, was chief organiser of the course, which this year focused on military medicine. Most of the 42 participants were senior military medical officers.

“Army medical officers often face very difficult dilemmas indeed,” Baer told swissinfo. “For example it can happen that they are ordered by their senior officers only to treat their own side, perhaps because of lack of medical supplies.”

“Of course such an order is against the laws of armed conflict, which state that decisions about treatment be based only on medical need,” Baer continued. “But an order is an order, so what should the army doctor do?”

Duty to explain

Colonel Peter Hostettler, who is head of the Swiss Army’s section on the International Law of Armed Conflict, believes such dilemmas are an indication of the need for courses like the one in Spiez.

“The Laws of Armed Conflict contain plenty of rules for medical personnel,” he told swissinfo. “And they should know how to apply them.”

“Medical officers are obliged to treat patients only on the basis of medical criteria,” he continued. “And army doctors have a duty to remind their senior officers of these obligations.”

Nowadays, military doctors can find themselves in even trickier ethical dilemmas. The “war on terror” has created new conflict situations in which it is hard to know how to apply the Geneva Conventions.

A recent article in the British medical journal, “The Lancet”, was critical of interrogation techniques at the United States detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, claiming that some Afghan prisoners had been questioned under “stress and duress”.

Interrogation techniques

The article, which was intensively discussed at the course in Spiez, urged US medical officers to speak out against the possible abuse of detainees.

Some US officers attended the course but declined to talk to swissinfo.

But Major General Punita Arora of the Indian army pointed out that international laws had not envisaged new types of warfare.

“All these laws were designed to apply to a conflict between two countries,” she told swissinfo.

“They don’t, for example, tell us how we should proceed to treat a wounded suicide bomber, who might still be armed and ready to detonate his bomb.”

Small, vicious conflicts

A further difficulty is posed by the small but vicious conflicts in countries like Liberia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. These wars are fought largely by armed militias who tend to ignore the rules of war.

Children are regularly recruited into the fighting, and the torture and rape of civilians is regarded as a legitimate way of waging war.

Colonel Hostettler agreed that this form of warfare presents a huge challenge for the Geneva Conventions.

“But contrary to what some people say, I don’t think it would work to start with warlords,” he said. “It’s the professional armies which set the standards; they are the ones who must be aware of international humanitarian law and motivated to observe it.”

“And if one side obeys the law, the others might do the same.”

Geneva Conventions

And Hostettler believes the world’s professional armies are, in general, truly committed to the Geneva Conventions.

“The real professional military, the ones who have to face war, are committed,” he said. “They know their lives might depend on the observance of the Conventions.”

“Politicians on the other hand are sometimes not so supportive.”

It could be argued, however, that neutral Switzerland, which has no real experience of armed conflict, is not really the appropriate choice to advise others about how to behave on the battlefield.

“In fact I think our neutrality is an advantage,” said Colonel Baer. “Delegates from all over the world come here and they know they can discuss difficult issues in a calm environment.”

“In fact I think this is one of the best things the Swiss government supports, and I would like to do even more.”

Major General Punita Arora echoed Baer’s sentiments.

“Ultimately, the thinking of army medical officers is the same the world over,” she told swissinfo. “We want to treat patients, we want to help human beings who are in need.”

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes in Spiez


42 senior military medical officers from 27 countries attended the course in Spiez.
It is the fifth course hosted by Switzerland aimed at promoting international humanitarian law.
The goal of the course was to set out the minimum ethical standards for military commanders, and to train soldiers in the International Law of Armed Conflict.
The course also discussed difficult issues raised by modern conflicts such as the “war on terror”.

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