Military Leaders from 56 countries are taking a brush-up course on the rules of war as defined in the Geneva Conventions. Senior officers from European, American, Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries are being taught how to integrate international humanitarian law into warfare. They are being taught to train their foot soldiers how to run a war without abusing or harming civilians caught in armed conflict. The two-week workshops, the first of their kind, are co-hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss army. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.
Organizer of the course, Timothy Yates guides me through the gray Swiss Army barracks. He is a retired British army officer and military adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross. He says participants are taught the law of armed conflict and how these rules are to be applied to real situations.
"So, our course is different in that we emphasize the law and we go through that. That is what the lecture is before hand; to go through where you find the law and what it says and then to have a series of events where there is a development of a situation which is the sort of thing that soldiers will face on the ground," he said. "And how do you deal with that?"
This first course for senior military leaders coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which spell out rules on the conduct of hostilities. They draw a distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian property and military objectives.
The laws prohibit attacks on civilians. They outlaw abusive treatment such as murders, rapes and pillaging. Torture and degrading treatment of prisoners of war also violate international humanitarian law.
Brigadier General Silver Kayemba is from Uganda. He is a big man who wears his national uniform and medals with pride. He says soldiers who are taught the laws of armed conflict, behave properly in fields of battle.
"So, I believe if there are some abuses, in most cases people do not know that what they are doing is not the right thing," said Kayemba. "And, it is a great idea if they are given that opportunity to learn and get exposed to such situations when they are prepared."
Kayemba was a division commander in Uganda before becoming Chief of Operations and Training. He fought against the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, which, he says gave him the opportunity to test and implement his knowledge of the Geneva Conventions. Now, he oversees a small force of Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia. He admits his soldiers are limited in what they can do.
"We are there as peacekeepers, not peace enforcers," he added. "We strictly live by the rules of engagement that were given to us. I cannot tell you about them. But, we have strict rules of engagement that apply when we have such situations."
Participants say the nature of armed conflict has changed. International or conventional wars between states have largely given way to civil conflicts. Red Cross studies show civilians are the main victims of the current 80 conflicts worldwide.
Participants also agree the nature of the threat has changed since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. They say the so-called war on terror has complicated the situation.
"There are certainly a lot of academics and there are some officials, as you say, in different governments that have made those arguments that perhaps the Geneva Conventions do not apply in this sort of new type of war that we are fighting," said Corey.
U.S. Lieutenant Colonel, Ian Corey teaches the law of war to U.S. army personnel. He believes the Geneva Conventions are relevant and remain the base line of treatment to be applied.
He says when soldiers are not taught the rules of armed conflict they can go astray, as happened in the case of Abu Graib prison in Baghdad, where American soldiers abused prisoners.
"I think there you had a situation with soldiers who probably did not receive the training that they should have," continued Corey. "And, some of the investigations have indicated that there was a lack of oversight, a lack of leadership involvement. And, the army and I think, the other services probably as well, has taken all those learned from those investigations into account and tried to fix any of those short comings."
Timothy Yates says what happened in Abu Graib shows the law can work because there are clear rules against this kind of behavior.
"In this particular case though, investigations have been carried out and people have been brought to account for their behavior there," said Yates. "And, this is indeed how the law should work. So, if this course helps to achieve this kind of aim, that kind of result, then, of course, it would have been of value."
The senior officers consider the interchange of ideas to be one of the most valuable aspects of the workshop. They say the opportunity to share experiences and concerns, to seek alliances and reflect on important issues with so many culturally diverse individuals is extraordinary.