The Common Article 3 Debate: What’s at Stake

So, what is all the fuss about these Geneva Conventions? Considering that the subject of compliance with these treaties not only led every Sunday morning weekly news program, but also is the cause of the so called "rebellion" by a group of highly influential Republican Senators, many are no doubt asking this question. The answer is in some ways complex, in other ways quite simple, and now central to how the United States will frame the nature of the conflict we are struggling not only to win, but to understand.

The Geneva Conventions -- yes plural -- are four treaties that were offered to the international community for acceptance in 1949. The purpose of these treaties was clear and simple: to mitigate the suffering inevitably created by war. Each of the four treaties addressed a distinct group of potential war victims: the wounded and sick; the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea; prisoners of war; and civilians who fall under the authority of an enemy state. The first three categories had been the subject of prior versions of these treaties. The convention protecting civilians was a new addition to the "lineup," motivated in large measure by the widespread abuse of civilians subject to German and Japanese military occupation during World War II. All the treaties reflected a legacy of humanitarian protection that began in 1864 with the development of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the organization which to this day represents the interests of all victims of war.

These treaties quickly assumed near universal acceptance among the international community. In fact, only this past month, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 became the first treaties in modern history to be adopted by every nation in the world. The United States ratified these treaties in 1955, and has been a steadfast proponent of compliance with them since that time, and with the principles they reflect for even longer. Collectively, these treaties include hundreds of "articles" establishing a comprehensive regime of regulation to protect the interests of all these "victims of war." For members of armed forces, the Prisoner of War Convention, or GPW, is perhaps most significant, for it implements a fundamental principle of the law of war: that captured soldiers are themselves victims of the conflicts they are required to fight, and therefore while they may be held for the duration of the conflict, their detention is for the limited purpose of preventing them from rejoining the fight, and not for the purpose of punishing them for their participation in war.

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