Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Modest Proposal from The UK

It’s one of those statements that leaves you wondering: “Why didn’t I think of that? Wait … did I think of that?” On April 3rd, British Secretary of Defence, (their spelling Vince), John Reid publicly called for revising the Geneva Convention. I’m sure the idea has crossed the minds of many of us in the last four years, as the issue of detainees, taken in the war on terror, has been used as a baton in the hands of the left to bludgeon the Bush (and Blair) administration’s handling of the War on Terror.

Predictably the left has already assailed Reid’s suggestion as heinously unnecessary. Human Rights Watch based in New York defended the existing Geneva conventions first drafted in 1864 and last revised in 1949. “Nothing obsolete” about the convention, claimed an HRW spokesperson. Then he used the opportunity for dialogue to again swing away at Bush and Blair.

"The efforts by the Bush and British administration to bend the laws risks leading to a situation where the rule of law itself is at risk," a spokesman at the group's New York headquarters said. "The basic principles of not torturing people or keeping them in detention indefinitely should not be changed."

Of course, nowhere in his speech did Reid advocate allowing torture. He merely pointed out that the current conditions are different form those anticipated in 1864 or 1949. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the rise of stateless terrorism are factors that were not foreseen then.

The particular difficulty of “the Terrorist” was not anticipated. The Geneva Convention was specifically created to deal with conflicts between states, conflicts that would be fought by uniformed members of national armed forces. The convention has never quite been able to get its arms around the non-state, non-uniformed actors. These threats as we have seen are the new paradigm of warfare.

Under the current Convention terrorists must either be treated as “soldiers,” accorded full Geneva Convention rights, or as common criminals, with the rights we in he west accord accused criminals. Neither of these is entirely satisfactory when one is dealing with acts of mass murder, rising to the level of warfare, committed by shadowy organizations. Essentially we have a brand new animal here, neither fish nor fowl. While some liberal thinkers are fine with the current idea that terrorists should be treated either like soldiers or common criminals, common sense and recent history demonstrate the problems with this approach. We are going to need some new legal conventions to deal with this, though I will admit it would be nice to see Osama Bin Laden and company eventually tried for 3000 counts of homicide in a Manhattan District Court.

The fact that the Geneva Convention was redrafted in 1949 after the first two horrific wars of the 20th century is proof that the concepts embodied by it are adjustable to times and circumstances. In fact while the last revision was in 1949, minor adjustments have been added over the years to address changes in society. In a nod to the diversity of cultures throughout the world, the Red Crystal was added to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent as an emblem symbolizing protected non-combatant status. Liberals apparently had no problem with that adjustment.

In fact Mr. Reid has not said the entire Geneva Convention was obsolete, merely that it again be adjusted to the reality of the current times. Far from merely enabling the Bush administration to write the rules as it sees fit, a new convention would require the participation of the world’s body politic. The current convention was signed by 192 signatory states.

For a new convention to work most, if not all of these states would have to sign on. This means seeking a consensus on the issue of the treatment of terrorists. It seems unlikely that the US and the UK would argue for torturing people, or indefinite detentions. They would in effect be creating, with other states, a standard on how to deal with the newest banes on human existence.