Publishing videos of Russian soldiers for propaganda purposes may be a breach
As headlines go, it could scarcely be starker. ‘Russian captive soldiers cry for their mothers’, shouts the Times.
In the accompanying article, a video seems to show a prisoner on a video call with his family, while the accompanying story reports that the Ukrainian Government is urging Russian parents to come by and collect their children.
Doubtless it makes compelling coverage. Perhaps it is an effective tool of psychological warfare. But does it also break the Geneva Convention?
Article 13 of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War reads:
The Ukrainians in the video are not mistreating the prisoner — quite the opposite. But they are clearly exploiting him for propaganda purposes, and that is against the rules as they stand.
This attitude might seem like nit-picking, but that is why these rules were drafted in the first place. It is quite possible to imagine Vladimir Putin’s regime punishing the family of someone publicly embarrassing (as they see it) the Russian Army. We’re talking, after all, about people who imprison schoolchildren.
One can hardly blame the Ukrainian Government for trying to exert pressure on the home front in Moscow. They are engaged in a fight for survival against a much more powerful neighbour — one with no compunction whatsoever about breaking all the rules of war.
But the rules exist for a reason, and the editors of Western newspapers have no such extenuating circumstances. If publicising such material is a breach of the Geneva Convention, they surely ought to stop.
Indeed, they are not the only people who could do with remembering that if the rules of civility don’t apply when you think you’re the good guys, they’re not really rules at all.
Moreover, holding the moral line is important now because the situation in Ukraine seems certain to get worse before it gets better. As it does, the temptation to resort to evil measures will increase; one Ukrainian propaganda outlet seems already to have tweeted, then deleted, a claim that special forces would start executing Russian artillerists after taking them prisoner.
If commentators in the West end up cheering that on, as some already have, it will fatally undermine the conceit of the international rules-based order we’re supposed to be upholding. If the Hague ends up merely a place where victors’ justice is handed down, the blow to its moral authority could be fatal.