Russia's snub of Geneva Convention protocol sets dangerous precedent

Russia's snub of Geneva Convention protocol sets dangerous precedent

While Turkish-backed fighters may have been committing potential war crimes in Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense: Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers dramatic day of testimony | Talks of 'crisis' at State Department | Trump tweets criticism of envoy during hearing | Dems warn against 'witness intimidation' | Trump defends his 'freedom of speech' Highly irregular: Rudy, the president, and a venture in Ukraine Biden responds to North Korea: 'I wear their insults as a badge of honor' MORE announced that Russia — which the United Nations also has accused of committing international crimes in Syria’s proxy war — is pulling out of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which protects combatants and others found on the battlefield, particularly civilians who are “especially to be protected.” Not doing so is per se a war crime.

A compilation of law, policy and customary international law, the Geneva Conventions have been a cornerstone in controlling the horror of conflict and containing its impact to the battlefield. Modern armies have been bound by the “law of armed conflict” since 1949. The Geneva Conventions is the only international treaty that all nations signed, and many have incorporated its principles into their own domestic law.

The Protocol Additional (1977) clarifies the nuances of armed conflict, essentially incorporating non-international armed conflict into the limits on the use of force highlighted in the Geneva Conventions. This was an essential move, because most of the conflict of the Cold War and the “dirty little wars” of the 21st century are of non-international character. Up to that point, the Geneva Conventions covered only international armed conflict. Though several countries, including the United States, have not ratified the Protocol Additional, all note that it’s evidence of customary international law and routinely follow its parameters.

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No country ever has quit this important international paradigm until Russia’s announcement on Thursday. Putin’s decision is a troublesome addition to the movement away from various international legal regimes that promote peace and security, a hallmark of the tenets of the United Nations. In this evident “Age of the Strongman,” the movement away from a global approach to the rule of law is overshadowed by populist and nationalistic views in many parts of the world.

The rule of law stabilizes the interaction of states; it enhances peace and security, and encourages stable global trade, financial and information systems that benefit all. Despite this, a majority of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have blocked and weakened U.N. efforts to perform its mandate — and even have mocked and prevented the International Criminal Court from seeking justice for victims of atrocity crimes. 

With a weakened European Union, there is no single power that promotes human rights values in a consistent way. The EU simply does not have the geopolitical horsepower to affect outcomes that elevate international peace and security. Even NATO seems to be rotting from within. The appearance of weakness by this central security organization only emboldens the strongman who has led Russia for two decades. Putin apparently no longer fears any international sanctions on his moves to become the major player in Russia’s sphere of influence. His withdrawal from Protocol I shows his utter disdain for international law. 

This, and other actions outlined here, cast the shadow of a gathering storm that’s beginning to spread across the globe.

In some ways, the U.N. Security Council permanent members — Russia, China and the United States — are holding the rest of the world hostage to a new world order that likely was not contemplated just three years ago. We have gone “back to the future,” so to speak, setting up a geopolitical paradigm similar to the 1930s, which resulted in the advent of World War II. Even then, the “sleeping giant” — the United States — fought its way, with the rest of the world, out of the gale-force winds of tyranny and led the world toward stability under the rule of law. Sadly, the United States no longer projects that sense of belief in an international community bound together to promote free trade, the sharing of ideas, and world order under the law. This could be fatal.

The British statesman Winston Churchill, in his book “The Gathering Storm,” declared: “Virtuous motives, trammelled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute wickedness.” Have we lost the post-World War II resolve to settle disputes peaceably under international law? Is the international community now too timid to face up to apparent resolute wickedness that appears to be showing itself today?

David M. Crane was the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. government, in positions including senior inspector general, Department of Defense, and assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a professor and distinguished scholar in residence at Syracuse University College of Law.