Bosnia gets lessons in laws of war

The law of war might sound self-contradictory - particularly in the former Yugoslavia, where conflict was almost synonymous with hideous crime - but it is being studied with enthusiasm by officers from the warring factions. In a draughty classroom, armed with slides and videos, Major Michael Kelly of the Australian army is debating the burdens of responsibility with a group of Bosnian officers: were the civilian deaths caused by the Dambusters justified by the Allied war aims?

The class is part of a programme created by the International Committee of the Red Cross - which has a legal battlefield role in helping the victims of war - to encourage respect for the Geneva Conventions. Major Kelly's task is to convince his pupils that military as well as humanitarian benefits come from respecting the Conventions.

"Complying with the law of war will not cost you militarily," Major Kelly said. "Purely from the military self-interest aspect ... it's a smart way to operate." The humanitarian argument takes a back seat: "We do have it in there, but it's not the main selling-point."

But the two mesh quite often - a favourite example is the war in Chechnya, where the brutality of the Russian assault turned the entire population - much of which was neutral or even anti-guerrilla - against Moscow. And the Russians lost 3,000 men in the initial assault on Grozny, despite their overwhelming superiority in fire-power.

The Geneva Conventions regulate warfare quite strictly, offering legal protection of a kind to almost everyone but spies and mercenaries (though they have rights to fair trials), with particular emphasis on the safety of medical and religious staff and civil defence workers, and the right of combatants to the status of prisoner of war. Buildings such as hospitals, vital infrastructure, historical or cultural monuments and objects containing "dangerous forces" - such as dams and nuclear power stations - are also protected.

The point is that if an army respects the enemies' facilities, its own will equally be protected; if military helicopters marked with a red cross are used only for medical evacuations, both sides can ferry their wounded in relative safety. And if one side violates such conventions more often or more openly, appeals for international support for the other are more likely to succeed - a point the Bosnian Serb officers may feel keenly.

"Are the dams civilian or military objectives and who ordered their destruction? And what if there was an anti-aircraft gun installed on the dam?" one Bosnian officer asked, after watching a documentary on the Allied raids which were intended to halt industrial production in the Ruhr valley. Major Kelly replied that dams could lose their protected status if making "a direct and effective contribution to enemy operations" - the definition of a military objective.

The point, he added, was to weigh the importance of the military target against the expected civilian casualties. And his seminars are intended to teach the armies how to structure command and control, how to build a framework in which officers and their juniors can take decisions swiftly. This is essential in a region where many soldiers went to war by default, as civilians with little or no training.

The major has already worked with the Croatian army, the Bosnian Croat militia and the Bosnian army, and is due to start soon with the Bosnian Serbs. Yugoslavia is also expected to sign up. He teaches groups of officers the basics, then selects a smaller number as future trainers in each force.

Major Kelly is pleased with his pupils' enthusiasm, despite the cynicism with which many arrive. "There is a fatigue factor and a disappointment factor with what has occurred here," he said. They ask if their former enemies are also receiving such training, but there is also a readiness to discuss crimes committed by their own forces. "It's quite heartening," the major said.

Of course war by its nature is bloody; but it need not be an inexorable descent into hell. The civilians and soldiers of this region, more than most, deserve the minimum guarantees afforded by the Geneva Conventions.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London