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May 11th, 2008
Exclusive to al-Jazeera
The Geneva Conventions: The Geneva Conventions: To Whom Do the Conventions Apply?
Marines with captured people

U.S. Marines round up soldiers and civilians in Korea in 1950.

The Geneva Conventions are multilateral, international treaties. This means that they bind only those nation-states that have signed, ratified, and deposited their ratification with the United Nations. When a country such as the United States or Iraq signs and ratifies the Geneva Conventions, it agrees that all of those individuals under its control — military and civilian leaders, as well as soldiers in the field, in the air, and on the sea — are bound by the Conventions’ mandates.

Individuals not operating under the control of a government signatory to the Conventions such as independent news outlets — regardless of their medium — are not bound by the Geneva Conventions. Journalists are not state actors, are not acting under the control of a combatant military power, and, therefore, are not bound by the laws of war. As non-combatants who are not acting as government agents, journalists are not bound — and, in fact, are protected by — the Geneva Conventions.

Wounded prisoners of war

The United States, Japan, and Germany all signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, which was in effect during World War II; the Convention’s policies on prisoners of war applied to all signatories, including the American soldiers pictured above. Yet after the war, some Germans on trial claimed that the Geneva Convention did not apply to them because the Soviet Union, one of their enemies, has not signed. This argument was not accepted.

The argument for the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to state-owned and state-run media outlets, however is quite strong. As an instrument of the government, state-owned television and radio stations have played an important role in recent conflicts. For example, the Office of the Prosecutor for International Tribunal For Rwanda (I.C.T.R.) has indicted a number of individuals connected with state-controlled media outlets in Kigali with incitement to commit genocide for their broadcasts during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They are currently on trial at the I.C.T.R. As agents of the state, these media outlets are bound by the international laws governing armed conflict.

The question becomes more complicated, however, when the footage is taken by embedded reporters and screened by military officials before it is aired. Once the military officials review the footage and approve it for broadcast — and the news organization then broadcasts it — assuming that the footage violates the Geneva Conventions, who should be held responsible under the Geneva Conventions? It would be difficult for the state to assert the media outlet’s independence when its footage is screened prior to airing. But how does one analyze the situation presented by the footage, shot by Iraqi state television and later handed over to an independent news outlet that broadcast it?

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