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Does Donald Trump Even Know the Rules of War?


Donald Trump, in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 8, 2016 WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for US president, in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 8, 2016. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Donald Trump, who has branded himself as the “law and order” candidate, is now the official Republican nominee for president of the United States, commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world and a White House beholding to national and international law and order.

But what could a businessman possibly know about the international rule of law? If your name is Jean Henri Dunant, it turns out, quite a lot.

Dunant was a successful Swiss businessman in the 1800s; in 1901, at age 73, the Norwegian Nobel Committee co-awarded him the first Nobel Peace Prize. His name is synonymous with the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. Dunant’s work to alleviate human suffering in war laid the groundwork for the first Geneva Convention and the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or the ICRC, in 1863.

The ICRC is the soul of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which includes the more visible national Red Cross societies familiar to most people.

Like Trump, Dunant was born into wealth. But his luxurious life in Geneva ruptured in 1859, when he witnessed the unconstrained battle between soldiers in the northern Italian town of Solferino, now known as the Battle of Solferino in the Second Italian War of Independence. He was not one of the 300,000 fighting Austrian or Franco-Sardinian Alliance soldiers. Dunant was a civilian, later writing that he was a “mere tourist with no part whatsoever in this great conflict.”

He was passing through on business. After less than a single day of battle, however, Dunant saw the horrific carnage of death and injury that was left behind. Before him lay 6,000 dead soldiers and 40,000 injured soldiers in the fields of Solferino without access to medical treatment. Dunant returned to Geneva and mobilized care for the soldiers on all sides of the battle.

Dr. Catherine Mullaly, the author.
Dr. Catherine Mullaly, the author.

He also wrote about his traumatic experience in “A Memory of Solferino,” concluding, “If the new and frightful weapons of destruction which are now at the disposal of the nations, seem destined to abridge the duration of future wars, it appears likely, on the other hand, that future battles will only become more and more murderous.”

Dunant’s actions gave birth to the ICRC, which remains the world’s humanitarian compass. Under the ICRC’s leadership, the lawlessness of actions against soldiers and civilians in war was deconstructed, understood and transformed. The classic rules of war were negotiated and codified at the First (1899) and Second (1907) Peace Conferences at The Hague.

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These international treaties established terms for the conduct of war between and among nations. The concepts of jus ad bellum and jus in bello and the military ethical principles of distinction and proportionality — rules of engagement — emerged. Further legal texts agreed to in the post-World War II United Nations world guaranteed further protections to soldiers and civilians and became known as the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Each of the four Geneva Conventions details the protections afforded particular groups — covering the treatment of the wounded on land and at sea, of prisoners-of-war and of civilians — caught in international conflict. There are two additional protocols, adopted in 1977, providing more details regarding the protections of civilians in conflicts of an international and noninternational nature.

Conflicts are not always easily classified along national boundaries. In such cases, Common Article III, occurring in all Geneva Conventions, can be thought of as the prime number equivalent of legal texts, detailing the most fundamental, nonderogable rights of any unarmed human being in time of conflict, including protection from “murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and the right that “the wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.”

Nearly every country in the world has ratified the Geneva Conventions, including the US, which was one of the first signatories in 1949 and ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1955.

The ICRC’s humanitarian mission is clear: to protect victims of war and to assert the importance of international humanitarian law, or the rules of war.

These legal agreements protect the US from illegal declarations of war on its territory and, where the US is involved in war, protect the lives and rights of American women and men in the armed services. American women and men in uniform know this, generals in command know this, and world leaders, commanders in chief, know this legal framework.

Knowledge of international humanitarian law is core to professional military training and practice. Humanitarians in the field know this.

But Trump is not a Swiss humanitarian.

In a December 2015 interview on Fox News, Trump said, “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” He repeated this proposal in the March 3, 2016 Fox News Republican debate in Detroit, and added his support for torture, saying, “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That’s my opinion.”

If he were elected president, in contravention of international law, Trump would seemingly agree to torture alleged terrorists and kill their family members. Trump’s words communicate intent to commit war crimes as defined by the ICRC as “serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict.”

Trump’s words mean to convey his leadership resolve to defend America’s national security. Instead, they demonstrate his ignorance of the laws of war that would misinform his foreign policy practice.

For the voting public, laws of war can be difficult to understand. This metaphor may help. There are rules to football. When the stadiums fill up, fans, players and coaches all know their respective roles in the game. They each know what is expected of them and will fulfill their duties within the rules. Fans will cheer from the sidelines, players will advance the ball up the field and coaches will optimize play for a team win. The rules keep the playing field level.

In war, civilians are the fans, combatants are the players and generals are the coaches. The referees? They impose the rules of the game. Professional armies do not kill civilians or torture. They are constrained by the laws of war.

And if a real real estate developer turned politician tries to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn, you know there are legal frameworks to protect you. The hoax, though, you know, is very real.


Dr. Catherine Mullaly is an anesthesiologist, global health physician, writer and journalist. Her interests lie in the politics, policies and practice of national health care in the United States, global health, emerging health care systems, gender economics, pandemics, war, natural disasters, trauma anesthesia, demographic change, humanitarian crises, population migration, human security, diplomacy, international security, the United Nations and the international disaster management system. She can be found on twitter @MullalyMD.

Dr. Mullaly trained in Canada, Australia and the US. She has worked around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa. She was a 14-year attending anesthesiologist and faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. She graduated with a master’s in public health from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in 2010 and received an M.S. in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2015.

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