Attacks on Non- Combatants – a deficit of morality

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( October 27, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Attacks on non combatants who do not take an active part in hostilities are prohibited by international humanitarian law, in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols of 1977. They consist of four treaties formulated in Geneva, Switzerland that set the standards at public international law pertaining to humanitarian issues and chiefly concern the treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war.
A non combatant civilian who is not involved in hostilities, according to Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, is a person taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, have to be, in all circumstances treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; taking of hostages; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment; the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. The Geneva Convention also provides that the wounded and sick will be collected and cared for, and . an impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been identified as a body that may offer its services in this regard.
The problem is that the Geneva Conventions of 1949 are treaties signed by and between State parties and do not formally involve internal combatants, although moral turpitude would require that any citizen or group of citizens would be ethically and morally impelled to follow their thrust. Amnesty International, in one of its publications, has gone a step further by stating that all parties to a war are legally bound to obey the rules of International humanitarian law, also known as the laws of armed conflict or the laws of war. Amnesty International supported its claim by stating that the rules of international humanitarian law have been developed in order to mitigate the effects of such conflicts and that they limit the means and methods of conducting military operations, emphasizing that they oblige combatants to spare those who are not taking active part in the hostilities, such as unarmed civilians and combatants who have been wounded or captured.
Statistics reveal that during armed conflicts, civilian casualties often exceed those of the military. The Washington Post of March 11 2006 recorded that as of that day, whereas the number of civilians killed in Iraq reached anywhere between 33,489 to 35,569, the number of United States military personnel killed was 2,308. This is a ratio of 14:1. There is no doubt that civilian deaths are on the increase in areas where there are armed conflicts. A UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) human resources team has recorded a total of 1445 civilian casualties in Afghanistan between 1 January 2008 to 31 August of the same year. This represents an increase of almost 39% on the 1040 civilian deaths recorded in the same period in 2007. Brent A. Hill, in his article War Made Easy, states that the percentage of civilian casualties in war in relation to military personnel, has risen from 10 percent in the First World War to 90 percent in the war in Iraq. The burning question is how has this unfortunate situation come about in the modern world?
The Editors of the book Rousseau on International Relations say that man is naturally peaceful and timid; at the least danger, his first reaction is to flee; he only fights through the force of habit and experience. Honour, interest, prejudices, vengeance, all those passions which make him brave danger and death, are remote from him in the state of nature. It is only when he has entered into society with other men that he decides to attack another, and he only becomes a soldier after he has become a citizen. There are no strong natural dispositions to make war on all one’s fellow men. But I am lingering too long over a system both revolting and absurd, which has already been refuted a hundred times.
Therefore, the inexorable conclusion is that there is no general war between men; and the human species has not been created solely in order to engage in mutual destruction. It remains to consider war of an accidental and exceptional nature which can arise between two or more individuals. There has been no proven principle that man thrives on war and destruction of his fellow beings.. Winston Churchill, in his War Speech in the House of Commons on 3 September 1939 reminded us of the enduring longing in man for peace when he said: “This is of the highest moral value–and not only moral value, but practical value–at the present time, because the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions of men and women, whose co-operation is indispensable and whose comradeship and brotherhood are indispensable, is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted”. Churchill concluded that perhaps it may seem a paradox that a war undertaken in the name of liberty and right should require, as a necessary part of its processes, the surrender for the time being of so many of the dearly valued liberties and rights.
War could be categorized into two types: conventional versus unconventional, where conventional warfare involves well-identified armed forces fighting one another in a relatively open and straightforward way without weapons of mass destruction. “unconventional” refers to other types of war which can involve raiding, guerrilla, or insurgency and terrorist tactics or alternatively can include nuclear, chemical or biological warfare.
All of these categories usually fall into one of two broader categories: High intensity and low intensity warfare. High intensity warfare is between two superpowers or large countries fighting for political reasons. Low intensity warfare involves counterinsurgency, guerilla warfare and specialized types of troops fighting revolutionaries War in its conventional image portrays battles that yield blood and gore. The image of war, shaped over centuries, has been about winning and losing. The modern view, as propounded by some, is that war is about a battle between the forces of freedom and the forces of evil. This posits the theory that the forces of evil are curbing or preventing freedom. In the backdrop of the traditional construct of winning and losing and the current belief of freedom against bondage, there lies the ancient wisdom of peace handed down by Jesus Christ as reported in the Gospel according to Luke cited in Luke 6:27-35, from Christ’s sermon on the plain: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. And just as you want men to treat you, treat them in the same way”.
The slaughter of non combatants is based on deception and betrayal, which has become an essential ingredient of modern warfare. From the paradox of playing by the rules on the one hand and deception on the other, we move to the paradox of seeking peace on one side and piracy and plunder on the other, which is usually one of the central intents of warmongers.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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