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Rights as Individuals Held in an Armed Conflict

The Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 are international treaties that govern the proper treatment of individuals captured during armed conflicts.The Geneva Conventions have now been signed by every country in the world. The United States signed the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and the Senate ratified them in 1955.

Every individual held during an armed conflict, whether a prisoner of war or not, is protected by the Geneva Conventions of 1949. As stated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the internationally recognized organization monitoring compliance with the Geneva Conventions,

Every person in enemy hands must have some status under international law: he is either a prisoner of war and, as such, covered by the Third Convention, a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention, [or] a member of the medical personnel of the armed forces who is covered by the First Convention. There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can fall outside the law (Commentary to Article 4, Paragraph 4, Fourth Geneva Convention).

Key among the protections afforded to individuals held during an armed conflict are the ones which are spelled out in an article that is repeated, word for word, in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and is therefore known as common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions states that

Persons 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, shall in all circumstances be 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 and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) Taking of hostages;

(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) 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 (Paragraph 1, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions).

 

Furthermore, Article 75 of the First Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Protocol I of 1977) asserts that

1. In so far as they are affected by a situation referred to in Article 1 of this Protocol, persons who are in the power of a Party to the conflict and who do not benefit from more favourable treatment under the Conventions or under this Protocol shall be treated humanely in all circumstances and shall enjoy, as a minimum, the protection provided by this Article without any adverse distinction based upon race, colour, sex, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, national or social origin, wealth, birth or other status, or on any other similar criteria. Each Party shall respect the person, honour, convictions and religious practices of all such persons.

2. The following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever, whether committed by civilian or by military agents:

(a) Violence to the life, health, or physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular:

(i) Murder;

(ii) Torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental;

(iii) Corporal punishment ; and

(iv) Mutilation;

(b) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault;

(c) The taking of hostages;

(d) Collective punishments; and

(e) Threats to commit any of the foregoing acts.

3. Any person arrested, detained or interned for actions related to the armed conflict shall be informed promptly, in a language he understands, of the reasons why these measures have been taken. Except in cases of arrest or detention for penal offences, such persons shall be released with the minimum delay possible and in any event as soon as the circumstances justifying the arrest, detention or internment have ceased to exist.

4. No sentence may be passed and no penalty may be executed on a person found guilty of a penal offence related to the armed conflict except pursuant to a conviction pronounced by an impartial and regularly constituted court respecting the generally recognized principles of regular judicial procedure, which include the following:

(a) The procedure shall provide for an accused to be informed without delay of the particulars of the offence alleged against him and shall afford the accused before and during his trial all necessary rights and means of defence;

(b) No one shall be convicted of an offence except on the basis of individual penal responsibility;

(c) No one shall be accused or convicted of a criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under the national or international law to which he was subject at the time when it was committed; nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than that which was applicable at the time when the criminal offence was committed; if, after the commission of the offence, provision is made by law for the imposition of a lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby;

(d) Anyone charged with an offence is presumed innocent until proved guilt according to law;

(e) Anyone charged with an offence shall have the right to be tried in his presence;

(f) No one shall be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt;

(g) Anyone charged with an offence shall have the right to examine, or have examined, the witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him;

(h) No one shall be prosecuted or punished by the same Party for an offence in respect of which a final judgement acquitting or convicting that person has been previously pronounced under the same law and judicial procedure;

(i) Anyone prosecuted for an offence shall have the right to have the judgement pronounced publicly; and

(i) A convicted person shall be advised on conviction of his judicial and other remedies and of the time-limits within which they may be exercised.

5. Women whose liberty has been restricted for reasons related to the armed conflict shall be held in quarters separated from men's quarters. They shall be under the immediate supervision of women. Nevertheless, in cases where families are detained or interned, they shall, whenever possible, be held in the same place and accommodated as family units.

6. Persons who are arrested, detained or interned for reasons related to the armed conflict shall enjoy the protection provided by this Article until their final release, repatriation or re-establishment, even after the end of the armed conflict.

7. In order to avoid any doubt concerning the prosecution and trial of persons accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity, the following principles shall apply:

(a) Persons who are accused of such crimes should be submitted for the purpose of prosecution and trial in accordance with the applicable rules of international law; and

(b) Any such persons who do not benefit from more favourable treatment under the Conventions or this Protocol shall be accorded the treatment provided by this Article, whether or not the crimes of which they are accused constitute grave breaches of the Conventions or of this Protocol.

8. No provision of this Article may be construed as limiting or infringing any other more favourable provision granting greater protection, under any applicable rules of international law, to persons covered by paragraph 1.

Torture or inhuman treatment of individuals detained during an armed conflict are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions:

Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the Convention: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, compelling a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of the hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a prisoner of war of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in this Convention. (Article 130, Third Geneva Convention).

Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly (Article 147, Fourth Geneva Convention).

Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions are war crimes according to The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 8, Paragraph 2a):

2. For the purpose of this Statute, "war crimes" means: (a) Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or property protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention:

(i) Wilful killing;

(ii) Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments;

(iii) Wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health;

(iv) Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military ne–cessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly;

(v) Compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power;

(vi) Wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial;

(vii) Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement;

(viii) Taking of hostages.

The Rome Statute (Article 7, paragraph 1) likewise considers that forcible transfer, illegal imprisonment, torture, enforced disappearance of persons, and other inhumane acts carried out as part of a systematic attack against a population, are crimes against humanity:

1. For the purpose of this Statute, "crime against humanity" means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(a) Murder;

(b) Extermination;

(c) Enslavement;

(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f) Torture;

(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;

(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i) Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j) The crime of apartheid;

(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

The relevant terms are then defined in the subsequent paragraph (Paragraph 2, Article 7) as follows:

2. For the purpose of paragraph 1:

(a) "Attack directed against any civilian population" means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack;

(d) "Deportation or forcible transfer of population" means forced displacement of the persons concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law;

(e) "Torture" means the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions;

(i) "Enforced disappearance of persons" means the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.

Grave breaches or war crimes create an obligation on any state to prosecute the alleged perpetrators or turn them over to another state for prosecution. This obligation applies regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator, the nationality of the victim, or the place where the act of torture or inhuman treatment was committed:

The High Contracting Parties undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the present Convention defined in the following Article.

Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed. or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. It may also, if it prefers, and in accordance with the provisions of its own legislation, hand such persons over for trial to another High Contracting Party concerned, provided such High Contracting Party has made out a prima facie case.

Each High Contracting Party shall take measures necessary for the suppression of all acts contrary to the provisions of the present Convention other than the grave breaches defined in the following Article.

In all circumstances, the accused persons shall benefit by safeguards of proper trial and defence, which shall not be less favourable than those provided by Article 105 and those following of the present Convention (Article 129, Third Geneva Convention and Article 146, Fourth Geneva Convention).

With respect to US Law, the treatment of prisoners by the United States military was originally governed by the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field of 1863 (The Lieber Code). Here are the relevant articles from the Lieber Code:

16. Military necessity does not admit of cruelty—that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions. […] It admits of deception, but disclaims acts of perfidy; and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.

56. A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy, nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity.

71. Whoever intentionally inflicts additional wounds on an enemy already wholly disabled, or kills such an enemy, or who orders or encourages soldiers to do so, shall suffer death, if duly convicted, whether he belongs to the Army of the United States, or is an enemy captured after having committed his misdeed.

74. A prisoner of war, being a public enemy, is the prisoner of the Government and not of the captor […]

75. Prisoners of war are subject to confinement or imprisonment such as may be deemed necessary on account of safety, but they are to be subjected to no other intentional suffering or indignity […]

76. Prisoners of war shall be fed upon plain and wholesome food, whenever practicable, and treated with humanity […]

79. Every captured wounded enemy shall be medically treated, according to the ability of the medical staff.

80. Honorable men, when captured, will abstain from giving to the enemy information concerning their own army, and the modern law of war permits no longer the use of any violence against prisoners in order to extort the desired information, or to punish them for having given false information.


The provisions of the Lieber Code have been incorporated in the currently applicable Uniform Code of Military Justice and in regulations promulgated thereunder, such as the 1997 Army Regulation 190-8 (Enemy Prisoners of War, Retained Personnel, Civilian Internees, and Other Detainees), where we find the following provisions relevant to the treatment of Guantánamo prisoners:

In accordance with Article 5, GPW [= 1949 Geneva Conventions for Prisoners of War], if any doubt arises as to whether a person, having committed a belligerent act and been taken into custody by the US Armed Forces, belongs to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, GPW, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal (sec. 1-6.a)

A competent tribunal shall determine the status of any person not appearing to be entitled to prisoner of war status who has committed a belligerent act or has engaged in hostile activities in aid of enemy armed forces, and who asserts that he or she is entitled to treatment as a prisoner of war, or concerning whom any doubt of a like nature exists (sec. 1-6.b).

Prisoners may be interrogated in the combat zone. The use of physical or mental torture or any coercion to compel prisoners to provide information is prohibited. Prisoners may voluntarily cooperate with PSYOP [= Psychological Operations] personnel in the development, evaluation, or dissemination of PSYOP messages or products. Prisoners may not bethreatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disparate treatment of any kind because of their refusal to answer questions (sec. 2.1.a.1.d).

The EPW [= Enemy Prisoner of War] / CI [= Civilian Internee] facility commander will […] (3) Provide prisoners with humane treatment, health and welfare items, quarters, food, clothing, and medical care. Health Services Command (HSC) provides medical and dental care for EPW in federal or civilian health care facilities per HSC plans. (4) Provide for morale, religious, intellectual, educational, social, physical and recreational activities for the prisoners […] (6) Allow prisoners to correspond with their families and receive relief shipments. (7) Provide prisoners copies of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (in their own language, if possible) (sec. 3-3.a).

The Geneva Conventions will be posted within the camp in the language(s) of the EPW/RP nation(s). A copy of the text will be supplied, on request, to any person who does not have access to posted copies. The supporting EPW/CI PSYOP unit can assist in preparing and disseminating native language copies of the text as well as other translation, printing, and audio-visual information dissemination support (sec. 3-4.a).

EPW will be interned in camps according to their nationality and language. They will not be separated from other prisoners belonging to the Armed Forces with which they were serving at the time of their capture, except with their consent (sec. 3-4.b).

EPW/RP [= Retained Personnel] will be quartered under conditions as favorable as those for the force of the detaining power billeted in the same area. The conditions shall make allowance for the habits and customs of the prisoners and shall in no case be prejudicial to their health. The forgoing shall apply in particular to the dormitories of EPW/RP as it regards both total surface and minimum cubic space and the general installation of bedding and blankets (sec. 3-4.e).

EPW/RP suffering from serious disease, or whose condition necessitates special treatment, surgery, or hospital care, must be admitted to any military or civilian medical unit where such treatment can be given (sec. 3-4.i.2).

EPW/RP will be allowed to send and receive letters and cards. There is no restriction on the number or length of letters or cards EPW/RP may receive. EPW/RP will be permitted to send not less than two letters and four cards monthly (sec. 3-5.a)

The following are limitations on punishment: (1) Collective punishment for individual acts, corporal punishment, imprisonment in premises without sunlight, and any form of torture or cruelty is forbidden. […] (4) No EPW or RP may be punished more than once for the same act or sentenced to any penalties except those authorized herein. (5) In no case will disciplinary punishments be inhumane, brutal, or dangerous to the person’s health […] (7) EPW or RP being disciplined or judicially punished will not be subjected to more severe treatment than that authorized for the same offense by members of the U.S. Armed Forces of equal grade. (sec. 3-7.e).

No moral or physical coercion will be exerted to induce EPW or RP to admit guilt for any act (sec. 3-8.b).

EPW/RP may only be transferred from the custody of the United States to a power which is a party to the GPW, and only after a representative of the United States has visited the Power’s internment facilities and is satisfied that the Power in question is willing and able to apply the GPW (sec. 3-11.b).

EPW and RP have the right to make complaints and requests to camp commanders and the ICRC/protecting powers regarding the conditions of their internment. EPW and RP may not be punished for making complaints, even if those complaints later prove unfounded. Complaints will be received in confidence, as they might endanger the safety of other detainees. Appropriate action, including segregation, will be taken to protect detainees when necessary. This policy also applies to persons who are confined pending trial or as a result of a trial. (sec. 3-16.a)

Any act or allegation of inhumane treatment will be investigated and, if substantiated, reported to HQDA as a Serious Incident Report (SIR) per AR 190-40. Once completed, a copy of the SIR accompanies the prisoner to the EPW/CI camp, and a copy is furnished to the monitoring Branch PWIC. All available pertinent information that the EPW or RP is willing to give, will be entered on the form (sec. 3-16.f)

Moreover, the War Crimes Act of 1996 made it a federal criminal offense for U.S. military personnel and U.S. nationals to commit war crimes as specified in the Geneva Conventions. Included under the notion of war crimes under this act are violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention cited above.

Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 118, § 2441. War crimes

(a) Offense.— Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a war crime, in any of the circumstances described in subsection (b), shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.

(b) Circumstances.— The circumstances referred to in subsection (a) are that the person committing such war crime or the victim of such war crime is a member of the Armed Forces of the United States or a national of the United States (as defined in section 101 of the Immigration and Nationality Act).

(c) Definition.— As used in this section the term “war crime” means any conduct—

(1) defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed at Geneva 12 August 1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party;

(2) prohibited by Article 23, 25, 27, or 28 of the Annex to the Hague Convention IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, signed 18 October 1907;

(3) which constitutes a violation of common Article 3 of the international conventions signed at Geneva, 12 August 1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party and which deals with non-international armed conflict; or

(4) of a person who, in relation to an armed conflict and contrary to the provisions of the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices as amended at Geneva on 3 May 1996 (Protocol II as amended on 3 May 1996), when the United States is a party to such Protocol, willfully kills or causes serious injury to civilians.

The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 moreover allows civilians employed by the U.S. military (including Department of Defense contractors) can be prosecuted in federal court if they commit, extraterritorially, a federal offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.

§ 3261. Criminal offenses committed by certain members of the Armed Forces and by persons employed by or accompanying the Armed Forces outside the United States

(a) Whoever engages in conduct outside the United States that would constitute an offense punishable by imprisonment for more than 1 year if the conduct had been engaged in within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States—

(1) while employed by or accompanying the Armed Forces outside the United States; or

(2) while a member of the Armed Forces subject to chapter 47 of title 10 (the Uniform Code of Military Justice), shall be punished as provided for that offense.

(b) No prosecution may be commenced against a person under this section if a foreign government, in accordance with jurisdiction recognized by the United States, has prosecuted or is prosecuting such person for the conduct constituting such offense, except upon the approval of the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General (or a person acting in either such capacity), which function of approval may not be delegated.

(c) Nothing in this chapter may be construed to deprive a court-martial, military commission, provost court, or other military tribunal of concurrent jurisdiction with respect to offenders or offenses that by statute or by the law of war may be tried by a court-martial, military commission, provost court, or other military tribunal.

(d) No prosecution may be commenced against a member of the Armed Forces subject to chapter 47 of title 10 (the Uniform Code of Military Justice) under this section unless—

(1) such member ceases to be subject to such chapter; or

(2) an indictment or information charges that the member committed the offense with one or more other defendants, at least one of whom is not subject to such chapter.

After the abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib became a national scandal, the U.S. government produced a number of ad hoc legal responses to it. They were the 2005 revision to the U.S. Code of Military Justice, The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Legal and political challenges to these responses appear inevitable.

 

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