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Inside Washington Publishers Inside the Pentagon

May 18, 2006

The Defense Department has issued a revision of its policies designed to ensure U.S. forces and the private contractors that accompany them adhere to the laws and treaties that govern their actions in overseas missions.

The new policy is the first update since the United States launched major counterterrorist missions in 2001.

The "DOD Law of War Program" directive was signed May 9 by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. It updates the policies and responsibilities set forth in a 1998 policy designed to ensure that the Defense Departmentcomplies with the Geneva Conventions; it also provides guidance for reporting violations committed by or against U.S. personnel.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions were established to provide a legal framework for the treatment of detainees during hostilities between two states.

Human rights groups and foreign governments have criticized the Bush administration for not initially according Taliban fighters in Afghanistan Geneva Conventions protections. The U.S. government has also maintained that members of al Qaeda are not party to any sovereign state and are therefore not covered by the treaty. These actions set the stage for the detention of individuals the U.S. government suspects are terrorists in a military prisonin Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, where U.S. soldiers and private contractors were foundto have tortured Iraqi detainees, raised questions about how well acquainted American forces are with their obligations under the laws of war.

The new directive accounts for the growing presence of private contractors in U.S. missions, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Work statements for civilians employed by private firms hired by the military must stipulate that "contractors comply with the policies contained in this directive," the document states. These firms also are "required to institute and implement effective programs to prevent violations of the law of war by their employees and subcontractors, including law of war training and dissemination," it continues.

The nine-page document sets out DOD policy "to comply with the law of war during all armed conflicts" and "in all other military operations." It also directs a range of senior military officers and civilians to implement an "effective program to prevent violations" of the law of war.

Also, the directive reassigns the Army secretary as the executive agent for investigation and reporting of incidents against U.S. personnel and sets forth avenues for contractors to make known to military commanders violations of the law of war within their areas of responsibility. -- Jason Sherman

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