Topic 2: the Question of the Rights of Suspected Terrorists

The Question of the Rights of Suspected Terrorists: how should the UN ensure that the rights of those suspected of terrorism are maintained?

With the dawn of the 21st century comes the arrival of a new type of warfare: terrorism. Terrorism traces its roots back to Spanish guerillas during the Peninsular wars who would often use hit and run tactics to spread fear or terrorr in the Grande Armeé’s ranks.

Since then these guerrilla style tactics and strategies have been improved until we have arrived at our modern day terrorists and those who use fear to accomplish political goals. The UN has on several occasions denounced those who are terrorists: the question being addressed during this debate, therefore, is not whether or not terrorism should be condemned or condoned but what should be done with those who are accused of terrorism.

To understand the treatment of prisoners one must first look back through history. Before the fall of the Roman Empire, enemy soldiers tended to either be enslaved or summarily executed. Clemency might have been offered to you had you been a high ranking chieftain or general but even then enslavement was still the more common result after a war. This gradually changed during the Middle Ages as it became more customary to spare combatants (despite some atrocities committed during this era) and in general, during the High Middle Ages, those who fought as officers or higher could expect to be ransomed back to their country of origin upon the conclusion of hostilities.

However, treatment of POW’s varied widely and depended massively on the brutality of the war. The 30 Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, saw atrocities committed on both sides and following the war’s conclusion in the famous Peace of Westphalia, it was agreed (at least in Europe) that soldiers would be ransomed back to their home countries following the conclusion of a conflict. This system stayed in place until the Battle of Solferino, which pitted a coalition of the French Second Empire and Italians against the Austrian Empire. During this battle, Swiss doctor Henri Dunant saw the carnage wrought upon the soldiers and found that there were barely any provisions for those who were injured while fighting.  He resolved to do something about this and the result was the signing of the First Geneva Convention in 1864. This led to the formation of the Red Cross and more generally an international push towards the humane treatment of combatants.

The UN has now positioned itself as the international organisation in charge of regulating the treatment of terrorists and enemy soldiers who have been captured. The UN states that any captured enemy soldier, which would include terrorists, must be treated humanely and with respect. Detainees cannot be tortured, experimented on biologically or otherwise be subjected to degrading or inhuman treatment while under captivity. This means that terrorists are under no obligation to tell their captors any information unless they want to. Furthermore, prisoners are under the responsibility of their nation states and must be taken care of by said state.

The question becomes: does this protocol need any updating? Criticisms have been levied against the Geneva Convention, one being that the Convention does not protect in instances of civil war. Furthermore, the definition of war can become murky sometimes. Where does one draw the line between intervention and outright war? These are questions that may have to be addressed. It is also worth considering the opposing viewpoint; namely that sometimes decisive action needs to be taken to ensure the safety of one’s citizens. If one could guarantee that torture would save hundreds of innocent lives would it be wrong to torture an alleged terrorist? All this will have to be considered and a new protocol established.