Urinating on corpses a violation of international law, not just military rules

The NATO command in Afghanistan has denounced the actions of a group of U.S. Marines who were caught urinating on killed Taliban fighters in a video posted to YouTube.

“A video recently posted on a public website appears to show U.S. military personnel committing an inappropriate act with enemy corpses,” said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in a statement released Thursday. “This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces.”

ISAF said that “a United States Criminal Investigatory agency has launched an investigation,” which “will be thorough and any individuals with confirmed involvement will be held fully accountable.”

The U.S. Marine Corps has also vowed a full investigation. Those involved could face court martial proceedings for violating U.S. military rules which specifically forbid “photographing or filming… human casualties,” according to a CBS News report.

While photographing and filming corpses may violate U.S. military rules, the act of desecrating corpses by urinating on them is also a clear violation of the First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which forbids “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment,” and contains this provision specific to treatment of the dead:

Art. 17. Parties to the conflict shall ensure that burial or cremation of the dead, carried out individually as far as circumstances permit, is preceded by a careful examination, if possible by a medical examination, of the bodies, with a view to confirming death, establishing identity and enabling a report to be made. One half of the double identity disc, or the identity disc itself if it is a single disc, should remain on the body.

Bodies shall not be cremated except for imperative reasons of hygiene or for motives based on the religion of the deceased. In case of cremation, the circumstances and reasons for cremation shall be stated in detail in the death certificate or on the authenticated list of the dead.

They shall further ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged, that their graves are respected, grouped if possible according to the nationality of the deceased, properly maintained and marked so that they may always be found. For this purpose, they shall organize at the commencement of hostilities an Official Graves Registration Service, to allow subsequent exhumations and to ensure the identification of bodies, whatever the site of the graves, and the possible transportation to the home country. These provisions shall likewise apply to the ashes, which shall be kept by the Graves Registration Service until proper disposal thereof in accordance with the wishes of the home country.

As soon as circumstances permit, and at latest at the end of hostilities, these Services shall exchange, through the Information Bureau mentioned in the second paragraph of Article 16, lists showing the exact location and markings of the graves, together with particulars of the dead interred therein.

The fact that a group of Marines would so cavalierly disregard these Geneva Convention requirements and felt confident enough to desecrate these corpses while being filmed begs the question of whether the military is properly instructing rank-and-file soldiers on international obligations.

Following World War II, the United States was one of the leading forces behind the Geneva Conventions, not only signing and ratifying them but sending the original signed copies to a vault in the State Department, where they remain to this day.

However, in January 2002, President George W. Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to Taliban fighters. Ignoring advice from the State Department, Bush sided with the Pentagon and Justice Department declaring the Geneva Conventions invalid with regard to conflicts with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He formalized this decision in a Feb. 7, 2002 presidential memorandum.

So, as the Marine Corps now investigates the soldiers captured on video urinating on Taliban corpses, it’s worth bearing in mind that these actions may emanate from a chain of command that has been poisoned by institutionalized lawlessness from the top down.

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