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Protecting noncombatants in new kinds of war

In 1863, during the height of the American Civil War, came the first in a series of efforts by nations to protect noncombatants from the abuses of war. Despite the good intentions, these efforts, both national and international, have failed to fulfill their original goals.

An accepted international code was not created until 1899, with the Hague Convention. More Hague conventions were created in 1907.

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Moral precepts were reflected in these codes; the main objective was to impose reasonable restrictions on those involved in war. But the codes only applied to those nations which ratified them. In World War I, many noncombatants were not protected, because not all the participants were signatories to the conventions. In World War II, both sides violated the conventions.

After the conflict, lawyers and government officials recognized the shortcomings of the previous codes. New forms of protection for the noncombatant were drafted. The best-known code was the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. It attempted to establish the minimum protection for the noncombatant. The prohibitions were very specific, and applied to not only international wars but civil wars as well.

Other documents also emphasized the protection of those not participating in war. These included the Nuremberg Principles of 1950, the International Red Cross rules (''Limitation of the Dangers Incurred by the Civilian Population in Time of War'') in 1956, and the more recent additional protocols of 1977.

In spite of these efforts, there is almost no effective protection for the noncombatant today. For example, in 1980, 10,000 perished in the conflict in El Salvador, and an estimated 100,000 in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1976. The continuing conflicts and high loss of life in Central America and in Eritrea, for example, indicate the lack of effective protection for the noncombatant. There are several reasons for this current situation.

* In general, since the 1960s there has been the proliferation of guerrilla wars. Guerrillas, for very obvious reasons, do not wear uniforms or insignias as required. In response, the government, not being able to distinguish the combatant from the noncombatant at all times, loses patience and decides to kill innocent people along with the guerrillas; in this way, at least the enemies and potential enemies of the state are eliminated.

* There is the new type of killer today, the terrorist. Terrorists on the average reject the systems of law because so-called ''bourgeois democracy'' is not democracy at all; rather, they fight for ''true democracy.'' Since the terrorist does not abide by any rules, there can be no protection for certain noncombatants.

* Although the laws of war have been updated to reflect the changes in guerrilla wars and civil wars, there is no enforcement power to prevent the widespread violations. There is no international body, for example, to intervene in Cambodia to check if the Vietnamese are violating the laws of war.

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* Indiscriminate murder is much easier today and weapons are so accessible that violence has become common in many states. Since nations emphasize the concept of national sovereignty, efforts to enforce the agreed-upon codes are all but impossible.

If the various laws of war and attempts to protect the noncombatant are to be of any success, several changes are necessary. For example, special noncombatant zones are needed in civil wars. These zones need to be protected by international or United Nations forces, rather than the national army. If a national army did the policing, it would invite the use of the zone for hiding arms, military supplies, and other general requirements for the continuation of a war.

There is currently no international authority pressing for such a change, despite the proliferation of domestic violence in the 1970s and its continuation in the 1980s. Often a nation may attempt to hide the scope of its internal conflict or use ''sovereignty'' as a shield to prevent any foreign interference. However, it is this outside interference, perhaps by the UN, that needs to occur , so fewer people are killed and the laws of war are enforced.

The Geneva conventions must not become nothing more than a scrap of paper, always praised but always ignored.

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