"THE END OF CIVILITY": Geneva Conventions, Sadly, Are Remnants of a Civil Past

By O'Hara, Kathleen | CCPA Monitor, May 2007 | Go to article overview
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"THE END OF CIVILITY": Geneva Conventions, Sadly, Are Remnants of a Civil Past


O'Hara, Kathleen, CCPA Monitor


Francis Fukuyama's presumptuous 1989 essay, The End of History, announced that the struggle to establish which ideology would lead the world-"liberal democracy" or "communism"-was over. With the fall of the Soviet Union, he claimed, "democracy" had won.

It's now clear that Fukuyama got it wrong. It's not "the end of history" we have been witnessing, but "the end of civility"-on both the national and international fronts.

The belief that people and nations should behave decently is vanishing before our eyes. Take, for example, the attitude toward the Geneva Conventions and their supplementary protocols, signed between 1864 and 1977.

As the world knows all too well, Convention 4, which protects civilians in time of war, has been made a travesty in every war since (and including) World War II. This Convention draws a clear distinction between civilian and military targets, stating that due precaution must be exercised to prevent incidental damage to civilians. Civilians-and their homes and communities-are not to be subjected to attack; their property is not to be destroyed, and they are not to be subjected to outrages on their personal dignity, to collective punishment, or reprisals.

Some effort used to be made by most civilized countries to avoid "collateral" damage-a military term made popular during the Vietnam war, meaning the unintentional killing or maiming of non-combatants. I used to believe that it was an unwanted and regretted side-effect of war-and that there would be a lot of explaining to do by the perpetrators of such attacks, both at home and internationally. But that no longer seems to be the case. The attitude now seems to be, "Forget about Convention 4 and protecting civilians-we have a war to win!"

What's worse is that those acting on such an attitude have not only been "terrorists," but those bent on crushing "terrorists"-as well as those nations that implicitly condone the killing of civilians by their silence and inaction.

In this to-hell-with-the-Geneva-Conventions environment, Canada's Louise Arbour, former Supreme Court justice and now the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, sounded like a voice crying in the uncivil wilderness when she recently accused warring nations and factions of committing war crimes when they knowingly slaughter innocent people.

She didn't single out the United States for criticism, but it's evident that the current Bush administration is most defiant in its flouting of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, President George Bush has admitted the U.S. is ignoring Convention 3, which covers the treatment of prisoners of war. According to this Convention, prisoners must be treated humanely and not subjected to torture.

For the world's only superpower to so blithely dismiss our civilization's historic effort to bring some basic civility to the conduct of wars and the treatment of prisoners was a horrendous step backwards.

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