Letter: Ethical codes under pressure on the battlefield

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Sir: Your leading article (29 January) refers to the 'many reasons for insisting that Britain honour its obligations under the Geneva Conventions', particularly with reference to the Falklands war and alleged war crimes. Bosnia also is attracting concern.

Legal scrutiny should not be confined to the excesses of ordinary soldiers. They, at least, have the excuse of extreme pressure in the heat of battle. At the other end of the spectrum lies a dormant war crime of monstrous proportions involving all of us, namely nuclear deterrence.

In 1977, the British government signed the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, designed to strengthen the protection of non-combatants. Sixteen years later this protocol remains unratified by our government.

In reply to a recent question, Douglas Hogg MP, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, wrote that 'we expect to reach a decision very soon' concerning ratification. That decision should be noted with care. Among its more than 100 articles, this protocol states: 'In any armed conflict, the right of the Parties to the conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited' (Article 35); 'the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants' (Article 48); 'indiscriminate attacks are prohibited' (Article 51); 'children shall be the object of special respect' (Article 77).

These brief examples are sufficient to show that Trident assaults on major cities, the core of our deterrent threat, would be a gross violation of the law. So far we have collectively dodged the fundamental implications of this minimal restraint. In the wake of the Cold War, there is a rare moment of truth when we may demonstrate our commitment to the law as a basis of world peace. Not just law as it may affect each soldier, but law as it clearly affects each one of us, and government, too.



Brancepeth, Co Durham

29 January