In Today's Wars, There's Nowhere to Run To
David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs, University of Virginia., The Christian Science Monitor
AMONG the many tragic aspects of today's civil and ethnic conflicts is that international conventions designed to protect noncombatants seem totally to be ignored.
The Hague conventions of the early 20th century that established laws of war drew a sharp distinction between military and civilian personnel. Civilian noncombatants were not legitimate targets; they were to be protected, if at all possible. These laws remained recognized, though aerial bombardment made them much more difficult to enforce.
After World War II, when undeclared wars became more common, the international community moved to apply these laws. The Geneva conventions of 1949, supplemented by a protocol of 1977, were designed to apply the Hague conventions "where there is armed conflict between two or more contracting parties, even if a state of war is not recognized."
The protocol on grave breaches of international law included attacks on the civilian population or individual civilians or launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population.
Fundamental Rules of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1978, require parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times "between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and property." The rules continue, "neither the civilian population as such nor civilian persons shall be the object of attack. Attacks shall be directed solely against military objectives."
Those waging today's wars are ignorant of or indifferent to these fundamental international principles. Serbs and Muslims fighting in Bosnia turn their guns on the helpless populations of cities and on the UN convoys that would bring them aid. Snipers brag to the press that they have killed an enemy, drawing no distinctions between an adversary with a gun and a woman standing in a bread line.
In Somalia, armed supporters of ruthless warlords steal food and beat off starving peasants. Months of negotiation have been required even to get the insufficient quantity of relief now flowing into the country.
In the confused circumstances of these conflicts, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess responsibility for individual acts of violence against civilians. …