Is Ukraine breaking the Geneva Convention?
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.
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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.
Everything Ukraine does, is heroic and emotionally uplifting. Anyone who doesn’t believe this, is a Putin apologist.
OR: they just think that rules are there for a reason and if we let ourselves be guided solely by our feelings and what, in our minds, is “heroic and emotionally uplifting” then we are in a handbasket on the express lane to hell.
Well said. What we are seeing is a war where the battle is not only going on in the real world but also in the virtual space. This will throw up a lot of questions about how the Geneva Convention applies to posts on social media – with the videos referred to in this article being a good example.
Even UnHerd ran an article a few days ago entitled “Ukraine is winning the online war” and rejoiced in how Kyiv was “reordering reality”. If we, the good guys are not “spreading propaganda” (= bad) but “reordering reality” (= OK, apparently) then – yes – it’s just a hop skip and a jump to thinking breaking the rules of international law is OK if we do it. And then we’re really in the drink because as of that point, the rules are: there are no rules.
What good are rules to those who are dead or brutalised? For rules to work, they must be upheld by everyone. As victims of the most extreme form of ‘rule-breaking’, I for one give the Ukrainians a pass to do what they deem necessary to survive.
Bob, if you were omnipotent, humanity would be destroyed in 5 minutes flat. The rules are made to continue to apply, even if their breach has resulted in death. If the rules cease to apply just because we’re appalled or otherwise feeling emotional, their breach can no longer be sanctioned and we go from a halfway civilised world to a violent and primitive dog-eat-dog global nightmare faster than anyone could ever imagine.
And, Katherine, there is not a single law of war that is not inconsistent with appropriate military strategy. Mistreating prisoners makes the enemy less likely to surrender and your troops more likely to be mistreated for example.
Well said. We, outside the conflict zone, have to be extra vigilant that we don’t become complicit or a part of anybody’s propaganda machine, that we do note real instances of atrocity, but that we don’t provoke, or ratchet up, supposed, or fictitious, breeches of the Geneva convention, by ignoring, or being ignorant of, rules that we apply to one side but not the other.
I do genuinely think that the Russians want to fight, as far as might be possible, a ‘clean’ war ( I don’t think they expected any ‘real’ war) but if hostile ‘propaganda’ ascribes to them a certain role then they may just start living up to it, and everyone then becomes the loser.
I wonder, am I the only one who is uncomfortable with the general arming of civilians ? As far as I’m aware that is also against the Geneva convention, in order to prevent, or minimise, civilian casualties there should be a clear distinction between combatants and civilians. If the Russians start killing large numbers of civilians who do we blame, the Russians or Ukrainians ? Both might be in the wrong, the problem is, the Russians might have an excuse.
On a side note, Anyone, from the UK who is thinking of ‘volunteering’ should be made (despite the efforts of Liz Truss) fully aware that they are on their own, and if caught, will probably be lucky to get away with just a bullet in the back of their skulls. Russian soldiers might have some respect and filial connection, that might evoke sympathy and compassion, with Ukrainians, foreign combatants on the other hand can probably expect no such mercy, especially if the conflict becomes a drawn out, bloody, affair.
They should just let Putin’s troops take over their nation without a fight. That sounds legit. I am very uncomfortable with arming civilians, as it happens. But the alternative could be far worse, and we should stop hand-wringing about the desperate actions of people fighting for their lives against a brutal and unprincipled aggressor.
I was genuinely shocked and appalled that Zelensky’s regime immediately encouraged civilian armed resistance. That’s precisely why the casualty rates in Iraq were so massive. When you do that, those civilians have no legal protection and as such the RoE can be used indiscriminately. Yet not a peep about this from the Western media.
The only conclusion one has to come to is that, perversely, the Zelensky regime wants dead Ukrainian civilians to force NATO into an intervention.
Unfortunately, it does seem to be the only logical conclusion.
Or, with few alternative options, that a civilian resistance is the best, or least bad, option for the defense of their country. The people do seem to be doing a good job if what we’re reading is correct.
……but where does that leave the Geneva convention ?
Do you prosecute soldiers for the indiscriminate killing of civilians, when, against an article in the Geneva convention, it is illegal to fight in a way that exposes innocent civilians to extreme harm by not dressing in a recognisable way as part of a military unit ? Or, instead, do you prosecute the government that armed and exposed their civilian population to harm ? It’s either one or the other, you can’t have it both ways at once. You can hardly complain if your enemy start killing civilians, if you yourself, armed and encouraged your civilians to attack the enemy.
In fact, you don’t need to answer that, I already know the answer. The Geneva convention isn’t worth the paper it is written on, except perhaps as a political weapon after the fact.
It’s all just another angle, another, cynical, part of the power game. The power brokers will prosecute and jail a soldier, from their own side, for finishing off (murdering) a wounded enemy, but happily chat and debate and reward an enemy commander who might be responsible for many heinous crimes, killing innocent civilians, but then they’re only worthy oriental gentleman, so they just need patted on the head, consoled and patronised because just thicko natives who don’t know any better. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Will it make a difference if both sides are Europeans ?
Boris Johnson will brazenly, and without evidence, declare that Putin has committed “war crimes” in Ukraine yet conveniently look the other way for how the Ukrainian Government and military have behaved so far.
One of the first things Ukraine did was convince grannies to throw molotov cocktails at a 1st world modern military. Then there’s been official posts from Ukrainian military officials warning that they won’t take Russian prisoners alive.
How about Azov Battalion keeping civilians trapped in Mariupol knowing the Russians are trying to prevent civilian casualties (the Russian MoD held off closing the encirclement of Mariupol and encouraged civilians to flee before they did).
All of this is being ignored. Biden even has the gall to suggest a war tribunal is coming against Putin’s apparently phantom crimes. Just ridiculous.
Military Lawyer here with a great deal of experience in this issue. This is without a doubt a breach of the GC.
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