I do not reject the Geneva conventions

By John Reid, secretary of state for defence (THE GUARDIAN, 05/04/06):

I believe political leaders have an obligation to ask difficult questions and that is why I am keen to encourage debate about the international law framework (International laws hinder UK troops – Reid, April 4). My motivation is from the centre left. I am not in favour of legal exceptionalism but I believe that the current framework may be inadequate, not least because it does not always enable the international community to act effectively against internal suppression, practised or threatened, on the scale of mass killings or genocide – illustrated by Rwanda and Sudan among others. This was not because, as the Guardian reported, I want to “make it easier for the west to mount military actions against other states”

That is why I said in my speech on Monday: “I welcome the work the UN has been doing with the Responsibility to Protect declaration signed last year.” However, those of us who argue for multilateral action under a modernised rule of international law need to face up to the uncomfortable fact of parts of it being adhered to in no more than lip-service. In particular Article 1 of the Convention of 1948 provides that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which states must undertake to prevent and to punish. Why, nearly 60 years later, do we find it so difficult to intervene?

I do believe that the legal constraints upon all of us, when set against an enemy which adheres to none whatsoever but is swift to insist that we do, make life very difficult for the forces of a democratic state. But this is not a reason to reject adhering to those standards. We embrace them. I have never argued that, nor want, British armed forces to be “free … from the restraints of the Geneva conventions”, as you suggested.

This is fundamental to me. I believe that democracy, restraint and respect for the rule of law are at the core of our national beliefs and said so explicitly in my speech. Moreover, even if they create a short-term tactical disadvantage, they represent a long-term strategic advantage – by basing our actions on principle, law, morality and right. I have repeatedly argued that international law supports our armed forces. Far from claiming that “international laws hinder UK troops”, as the headline suggested, I said I was not, in any way, suggesting that British forces should operate outside the law.

In raising questions about the adequacy of the international legal framework in the light of modern developments in conflict, I am suggesting that the body of relevant international rules and conventions should, where beneficial, be strengthened, not weakened. If new agreements to cope with conflict against non-state actors such as the international terrorist will be helpful, we should not shy away from taking the initiative. This means extending, not reducing, such conventions.

In part because I do not have a preformed answer to these problems, I hope my call for a debate will strike a chord with many Guardian readers, who can find my speech in full at https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-defence.