Sunday, December 16, 2007

Turkey Bombs PKK; BBC Misconstrues International Law

From BBC this morning:

"Turkish officials said the warplanes had targeted the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), in areas near the border.

But officials in northern Iraq said the planes had struck several villages. There were reports that one woman was killed, although this was unconfirmed.”
Here is a classic example of the media using the wrong indicators to gauge whether air attacks are targeting military objectives: the sex of the victims. So the story goes, if there are “women and children” dead, then the attack has hit civilians.

The assumption – quite wrong in the case of the PKK, with its 40% female fighters – is that if you’re a woman, you’re definitely a civilian. On the other hand the bodies are “battle-age males” all is fair game, irrespective of whether those males were involved in the fighting.

The same grisly logic was behind Ratko Mladic’s careful separation of “women and children” from men and boys at Srebrenica, prior to massacring 8,000 unarmed “battle-age” males (some as young as twelve); and the US government’s refusal to allow “battle-age” males to flee Fallujah with their families in 2004. These are, of course, illegal acts, since civilians are protected under the Geneva Conventions irrespective of sex, and that immunity is lost only when one takes up arms during an attack.

Anyway, by acting as if sex and age are some kind of proxy for “civilian status,” the news media is fomenting this faulty assumption that so often results in war crimes. Its reporting would be better to emphasize whether the victims appeared to be close to military objectives, or whether they were armed or otherwise doing something associated with the lawful target of the attack.

1 comment:

Charli Carpenter said...

I agree with you completely and have made a similar argument in my book, available at

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