Nato urged to uphold humanitarian law in wartime

The treatment of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay raised the question of human rights Keystone

Applying human rights laws in times of war is the subject of an international conference in Lucerne.

This content was published on September 25, 2002 minutes

The conference, which is taking place within the framework of Nato's Partnership for Peace (PfP), has attracted participants from over 30 countries.

Switzerland and Britain are joint organisers of the event, which aims to put forward concrete measures to ensure international humanitarian law is integrated into multinational military operations.

When Switzerland first joined Partnership for Peace in 1997, some Swiss were concerned that membership would compromise the country's traditionally strict neutrality.

Instead, Switzerland has used its long experience in the field of human rights to good effect, according to Manuel Sager, head of the coordination office for international humanitarian law at the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

"We wanted to increase the profile of humanitarian law within Partnership for Peace," Sager told swissinfo.

"And it was on our initiative that humanitarian law has now been institutionalised within PfP. This conference is one of the visible signs of that.

"The fact that participants from over 30 countries are attending the conference is a sign that our initiative is taken seriously," he added.

Human rights

Many of the participants at the conference were military lawyers, such as Colonel Charles Garraway from the directorate of army legal services at Britain's Ministry of Defence.

"In a way the application of human rights has to come from the heart as well as the head," Garraway told swissinfo.

"The battlefield is not a pretty place. So what we have to get through to the soldier about human rights is not just knowledge. He has to truly believe it's the right thing to do."

Garraway served in the Gulf War as a military lawyer supervising the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, and he recalls an incident in which British troops and the single prisoner they were holding came under a suspected Scud missile attack.

"We all put on our protective clothing and gas masks," he remembered. "Then we realised the prisoner didn't have these. One of our soldiers ran back and gave him his own."

"He told me afterwards he thought it was the right thing to do," Garraway continued. "And that is the sort of behaviour we are looking for."

Conflicts in multinational peacekeeping

In fact most of the human rights issues which arise, particularly in multinational peacekeeping operations, are much more mundane.

They come from the fact that different countries have different legal obligations and different military regulations.

Thus the conference is discussing such topics as the rules of engagement for multinational forces, and the legal framework for peace support operations.

In Bosnia, Major General William Nash of the United States was Commander of Task Force Eagle, a multinational division of 25,000 soldiers from 12 countries.

"I was the first US commander to serve side by side with Russian forces," Nash told swissinfo. "And we had troops from Poland, from Ukraine, from Turkey."

"The trick was to ensure that everyone understood the obligations of international humanitarian law, and abided by them."

United States example

Nash is well aware of the criticism that has been levelled at his own country for its treatment of Afghan prisoners at the Guantanamo military base in Cuba.

"It's a difficult issue," he agrees. "For one thing there has to be a decision about whether these prisoners are really prisoners of war, or whether they are criminals, terrorists. Some of them are certainly criminals."

"But," he added, "I still think in general it's better to err on the side of caution, and by that I mean, on the side of humanitarian law."

It is hoped that the participants at the conference in Lucerne will be able to discuss all these issues freely.

"One main problem is that there is a lack of communication between countries about these things," said Charles Garraway.

"And we hope that by meeting together we can share and identify human rights questions, and move towards answers."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key Facts

Switzerland joined Nato's Partnership for Peace in 1997, and has made international humanitarian law one of its main issues.
The conference in Lucerne is the third in a series on international humanitarian law, jointly organised by Switzerland and Great Britain.
Experts from 30 Euro-Atlantic Partnership for Peace countries are participating in the conference.

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