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Reid calls for Geneva Convention to be rewritten

Thomas Harding / London Telegraph | April 4 2006

John Reid, the Defence Secretary, called for sweeping changes to international law, including the Geneva Convention, to counter the threat of global terrorism.

The legal grounds for conducting pre-emptive strikes were inadequate in the current climate of suicidal terrorists, as were the laws to prevent genocide and internal repression, he said.

Unless changes were made to international law, countries would be hamstrung in countering threats from terrorists intent on killing on a huge scale with weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Reid also called for a review of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war in the speech "Twenty-first Century Warfare, Twentieth Century Rules" at the Royal United Service Institute think-tank.

"We risk trying to fight 21st-century conflict with 20th-century rules which, when they were devised, did not contemplate the type of enemy which is now extant," he said. "The laws of the 20th century placed constraints on us all which enhanced peace and protected liberty. We must ask ourselves whether, as the new century begins, they will do the same."

Laws such as the Geneva Convention had been drawn up at a time when the main threat of war was between states but the 21st-century world was under threat from terrorist groups unconstrained by any sense of morality or adherence to any conventions. "We now have to cope with a deliberate regression towards barbaric terrorism by our opponents," he said. "The legal constraints upon us have to be set against an enemy that adheres to no constraints whatsoever."

The spread of weapons of mass destruction posed new questions about when it was right to mount a pre-emptive strike. "We know that terrorist groups continue to try to acquire such weapons and that they have described their willingness to use them," he said.

His words were criticised by Human Rights Watch which said that there was "nothing obsolete" about the Geneva Convention, which was first signed in 1864 to protect the sick and wounded in war.

"The efforts by the Bush and British administration to bend the laws risks leading to a situation where the rule of law itself is at risk," a spokesman at the group's New York headquarters said. "The basic principles of not torturing people or keeping them in detention indefinitely should not be changed."

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat shadow defence spokesman, said that following the "disaster" of the Iraq invasion Mr Reid's comments would be met with "incredulity in the West and with alarm in the ministries of Teheran".

He added: "If Mr Reid is inviting us to endorse American practices such as indefinite detention, or international rendition, they must be emphatically rejected.

"Compromising on established values and principles would not only be wrong, but would undermine crucial efforts to win hearts and minds."

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