The purpose of this essay, written in late 2006, is to take stock of the current application of the Geneva Conventions in the global "war on terrorism," including interpretations recently taken by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hamdan case. The Geneva Conventions and the laws of war more generally comprise a sophisticated regulatory regime whose rules can and should be closely analyzed by lawyers. Yet, like all law, the inevitable imprecision in the rules presents opportunities for governments to exploit gray areas so as to augment governmental authority, and to avoid sensible interpretations that will protect individuals from overreaching governmental power. Such exploitation invariably severs the rules from their ethical foundation and loses sight of their underlying object and purpose.
The events of 9/11 and their aftermath revealed complicated scenarios that do not fit easily into the traditional paradigms of the laws of war, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Highly knowledgeable persons in the field have reached diametrically opposite conclusions about certain fundamental issues, such as whether the conflict with Al Qaeda constitutes an "armed conflict" within the meaning of the laws of war, whether it matters if the Taliban wore regular uniforms or operated within a regular command structure, and whether a person who fails to qualify as a prisoner of war under one convention must invariably then qualify as a protected civilian under another. Many of these controversies arise because the two dominant paradigms that operate within the Geneva Conventions - one concerning "international" armed conflict between two or more states, and the other concerning "non-international" (typically understood as internal) armed conflict between a state and non-state actors - do not fit the phenomenon of global terrorism, where the dominant paradigm concerns transnational armed conflict between state and non-state actors.
Yet from their earliest formation, the laws of war have recognized the problem of dealing with irregular forces and the problem of adapting the law to circumstances that change over time. For that reason, built into the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols are the means for taking account of areas that are not addressed explicitly or in detail. Rather than trying to exploit such gray areas in the law, lawyers should seek to inject the dictates of humanity into them, in a manner that best reconciles the competing interests during armed conflict of both governments and persons who are at risk. As an example of how one might allow the Geneva Conventions to evolve in a sensible fashion, this essay discusses the rules that should be applied with respect to the termination of the captivity of unprivileged combatants, such as those held at Guantánamo Bay. While the environment for handling such detainees remains fluid, and the norms expressed by the laws of war on these points are far from certain, this essay suggests answers that are legally plausible and that appear consistent with sound policy choices. Similar efforts to fill in the gray areas for other aspects of the law of war as it relates to global terrorism should also be pursued.
GW Paper Series
GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 239; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 239
Sean D. Murphy, Evolving Geneva Convention Paradigms in the 'War on Terrorism': Applying the Core Rules to the Release of Persons Deemed 'Unprivileged Combatants'75 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1105 (2007).