Geneva Conventions are outdated, says US envoy

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The Independent US

The Geneva Conventions are outdated and need to be rewritten to deal with the threat of international terrorism, the United States ambassador for war crimes said yesterday.

The forthright views of Pierre-Richard Prosper, who was personally appointed by President Bush, will fuel the controversy over the treatment of Afghan detainees by America. His remarks, in an interview with The Independent, represent the first time a senior figure in the Bush administration has spoken so unambiguously about an overhaul of the conventions. They reflect Washington'sexasperation at criticism by Western allies and international organisations of its treatment ofprisoners at Camp X-Ray on Cuba.

The Geneva Conventions have tempered some of the worst excesses of modern warfare, and attempts to tamper with them are bound to lead to opposition. However, there is a growing feeling in the administration that the present form of the conventions, signed in 1949, does not take into account the new type of conflict in which individuals and organisations, such as al-Qa'ida, rather than states, wage war.

"We should look at all international documents to see whether they are compatible with this moment in history. We should look at them now, and look at them again in the future, in 20 years' time, in 50 years' time," Mr Prosper said.

"The war on terror is a new type of war not envisaged when the Geneva Conventions were negotiated and signed. We now have organisations that ... do not conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war."

The ambassador stressed that the Geneva Conventions remained relevant for wars between sovereign states. Difficulties had only arisen when they had been applied to international terrorism.

Mr Prosper, the son of Haitian immigrants, is a respected jurist who successfully prosecuted the first case under the 1948 Genocide Convention at the Rwanda war crimes tribunal. He is in Europe to defend American policy towards its Afghan prisoners, and met Foreign Office officials yesterday.

Washington's position on the prisoners has been inconsistent. After initially declaring that none was entitled to the protection of the conventions, President Bush said this month that Taliban prisoners fell under Geneva but al-Qa'ida prisoners would not. He later added to the confusion by saying that Taliban prisoners would not have PoW status but would be treated as "unlawful combatants".

But Mr Prosper said yesterday: "Analysis of the Geneva Conventions leads us to the conclusion that the Taliban detainees do not meet the legal criteria under Article 4."

He stressed that the prisoners, whom he had visited, were being well looked after and some of the privileges of the Geneva Conventions had been extended to them.