There has been a lot of heated debate about the Royal Marine who was convicted of murder in relation to an incident, inadvertently recorded by a helmet camera, that took place during the conflict in Afghanistan. The soldier, a highly experienced sergeant, found a Taliban fighter lying injured and helpless in a field. After six minutes of relaxed conversation with his two comrades, he fired a bullet into the chest of the wounded insurgent and is heard to say: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”
It’s tempting to empathise with the Marine, who may have encountered many ‘kill or be killed’ scenarios during his tour of duty and may have been suffering from combat stress. After all, he was up against an enemy that does not represent any government, has no geographical boundaries, lacks a clear command structure, pursues an agenda of hate, is not trained in the conduct of hostilities and is scornful of the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.
But, if we were to condone his actions or grant clemency on the basis of extenuating circumstances, what would it say about us?
The first of the Geneva Convention treaties, formulated at an international meeting way back in 1864, enshrined the basic principles that wounded soldiers must be cared for, captured soldiers must be treated humanely and civilians must be spared. These original principles were routinely broken during the next 100 years, providing the motivation for a fresh set of rules to alleviate the misery of conflict for the wounded, the sick, prisoners of war and civilians caught up in the horror and violence of battle. The new treaties adopted in 1949 included a prohibition on torture and set the standard for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war. It has to be said that the rules were intended to apply to conflicts between recognised nation states that were signatories to the Conventions. But that should not be viewed as a restriction of the scope of their validity.
The onset of Islamic terrorism may have changed the landscape of war and presented us with a particularly evil enemy from whom we can expect no mercy, but that does not mean we should dispense with our obligations. We have to do the right thing. It’s what defines us. This is a condemn or be condemned scenario. No matter how barbaric our enemies may be, we must stay true to our values precisely because relinquishing them would represent a catastrophic defeat of our civilisation.