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May 11th, 2008
Exclusive to al-Jazeera
The Geneva Conventions: The Geneva Conventions: The Controversial Footage
Captured Japanese soldiers on the beach

Captured Japanese soldiers in Guam bow their heads after hearing Emperor Hirohito announce Japan’s unconditional surrender to end World War II.

On March 23, 2003, al-Jazeera, the most widely watched Arabic-language satellite news station, broadcast video footage — which it had received from the Iraqi government — of American prisoners of war and dead American soldiers. The footage showed dead American soldiers, easily identifiable by their faces, and American P.O.W.s. The P.O.W.s, visibly exhausted and somewhat confused, were interviewed by an unseen speaker, presumably from the Iraqi government or Iraqi state television. The P.O.W.s were asked their names and their hometowns; one was asked if he was in Iraq in order to kill Iraqis. (He answered, “No, I fix broke stuff.”) Because of al-Jazeera’s more advanced technology, the network was able to broadcast some of this footage before even Iraqi state television could.

But al-Jazeera was not alone in broadcasting this footage. Sky News, the British 24-hour news satellite station owned by Rupert Murdoch, also broadcast the footage showing the prisoner’s identifiable faces at least once; later, blocking out the faces, Sky News repeatedly showed the video. The CBS program FACE THE NATION once broadcast the footage without obscuring the faces of the dead. The footage was also broadcast, at least in part (with the faces of the P.O.W.s and dead soldiers blurred), by a number of American news outlets — both network and cable.

Just a few days before the footage of the “interviews” with American P.O.W.s, American news outlets broadcast footage of Iraqi forces surrendering and photographs of Iraqi prisoners of war appeared in a number of United States newspapers. In some of these images, individual faces were identifiable, in others they were not. As such, many of the warnings following the al- Jazeera broadcast were directed at both the Iraqi government and the coalition forces. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross, in its daily briefing on March 24, 2003, stated:

the ICRC draws attention to the relevant passage of Article 13 of the Geneva Convention: “… prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence and intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” It is important to point out that a) the dignity of P.O.W.s should be protected and b) account should be taken of the impact these images could have on their families. The two types of presentations — of Americans captured in Iraq and of Iraqis captured by coalition forces — were not equivalent. The footage of the American P.O.W.s raised serious questions about the treatment of P.O.W.s in Iraqi custody, and the questioning — and subsequent broadcast of this questioning on Iraqi state television — resulted in allegations by many that Iraq violated Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention. On the other hand, many contended that the images of the Iraqi soldiers surrendering or being taken into custody did not single out individuals and was simply an act of reporting events as they unfolded.

Large group of captured soldiers

The 1899 Hague Convention’s Annex devoted 18 of its 60 articles to laying out the treatment and maintenance of prisoners of war. These same eighteen articles, with minor changes in text, were included in the 1907 Hague Convention. These early conventions set forth basic principles that continue to govern the treatment of prisoners of war. Most importantly, these conventions defined who qualified for protection as a prisoner of war, such as Spc. Joseph Hudson, shown above, whose interview by Iraqi officials was broadcast across the globe.

The reaction in the United States to al-Jazeera’s initial broadcast was swift and decisive. From the Pentagon, warnings were issued regarding a violation of the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on the humiliation of P.O.W.s, and some media pundits engaged in similar accusations against al-Jazeera with respect to violation of the Convention’s requirements. Few of these critics distinguished between the Iraqi state television’s recording of the interviews and to al-Jazeera’s decision to air the footage.

The availability of instantaneous access to images of warfare has undoubtedly changed both the media’s role and the response of military officials, government leaders, international jurists, and human rights advocates. This incident raised important questions about the role of international law in an era where not only does the technological capability exist to send images instantaneously across the world, but immediate access to information — even uncensored information — is expected by the viewing public. In the weeks that followed the broadcast, many questioned whether the Geneva Conventions needed to be updated in light of the role the media — especially television and the Internet — plays in shaping coverage of events. The challenge, however, is that international laws governing armed conflicts govern only the conduct of the parties to the conflict — not media outlets. And it has often been journalists — reporters like David Rohde, Roy Gutman, Jon Lee Anderson, and many others — who have publicized the stories of war crimes that might not otherwise have been discovered.

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