|By Eric Stover
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 recognized that “military necessity” has its limits and that combatants, as well as civilians, who are wounded or held as prisoners of war hors de combat should not be military targets and should be treated with dignity at all times. The conventions also specify that both civilians and combatants who are sick and wounded should be treated equally, and that neither should be given differential treatment.
The sick and wounded, Article 12 common to the First and Second Geneva Conventions of 1949 states, “shall be treated humanely and cared for by the Parties to the conflict in whose power they may be, without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or any other similar criteria. Any attempts upon their lives, or violence to their persons, shall be strictly prohibited; in particular, they shall not be murdered or exterminated, subject to torture or to biological experiments; they shall not willfully be left without medical assistance and care, nor shall conditions exposing them to contagion or infection be created.”
History is replete with the accounts of sick and wounded combatants and civilians who have been physically and psychologically abused by their captors. One of the most horrific accounts of the abuse of prisoners during World War II took place in a Japanese-run germ warfare factory on the Manchurian Plain. Japanese doctors at the secret facility injected captured Chinese and Korean soldiers, many of whom had been wounded in battle, with bubonic plague, cholera, syphilis, and other deadly germs to compare the resistance to disease of various nationalities and races. Hundreds of prisoners of war died as a result of the biological experiments and hundreds more were killed by the Japanese when they fled the laboratory.
During the siege of the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar in November 1991, troops with the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Serb irregulars removed hundreds of patients and staff from the municipal hospital and executed them at the end of a ravine on the Ovcara collective farm, nine kilometers south of the city. Five years later, forensic investigators, assembled by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), exhumed two hundred bodies from a mass grave on the Ovcara farm. Some of the bodies were dressed in smocks and white clogs, garb common to hospital employees in Europe. Other bodies bore signs of previous injuries: a thigh bandaged in gauze or a broken arm set in a plaster cast and sling. A pair of broken crutches lay on top of one body. Another had a catheter dangling from its pelvis. By May 1998, the forensic scientists had identified ninety-one of the bodies. The ICTY, in the meantime, had indicted the former major of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic, and three JNA officers—Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic, and Veselin Sljivancanin—for the massacre on the Ovcara farm.