US and NATO have been big advocates for human rights and international law around the globe. I'm only focusing on Iraq and current military missions in the Middle East and violations of the Geneva Convention specifically waterboarding to gain 'intel.'

Geneva conventions on Humanitarian law:

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 contain a number of provisions that absolutely prohibit torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon individual dignity.

International human rights law, both universal and regional

torture is prohibited by Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, Article 12 of the First and Second Conventions, Articles 17 and 87 of the Third Convention, Article 32 of the Fourth Convention, Article 75 (2 a & e) of Additional Protocol I and Article 4 (2 a & h) of Additional Protocol II. In international armed conflict, torture constitutes a grave breach under Articles 50, 51, 130 and 147 respectively of these Conventions. Under Article 85 of Additional Protocol I, these breaches constitute war crimes. In non-international armed conflict, they are considered serious violations.


Dick Cheney under the Bush administration has openly talked about torture used by the CIA and even claimed he approved it.

Cheney's comments also mark the first time that he has acknowledged playing a central role in clearing the CIA's use of an array of controversial interrogation tactics, including a simulated drowning method known as waterboarding.

"I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared," Cheney said in an interview with ABC News.

Asked whether he still believes it was appropriate to use the waterboarding method on terrorism suspects, Cheney said: "I do."


Even recently, Obama did admit also that we "tortured some folks" during a press conference.

We tortured some folks”

Obama said during a White House news conference Friday.

“When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be understood and accepted.”


So why were no charges brought up by international or even federal courts for the government officials that were involved? The evidence was clear and there has even been admissions to it. Does the US not follow international laws and rules of engagement?

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    There is a line between torture and enhanced interrogation, manned by thousands of lawyers. Dec 17, 2016 at 23:56
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    Well, I'm not a lawyer, but "In non-international armed conflict, they are considered serious violations." seems to right away give a possible explanation, since US wasn't fighting against a nation state.
    – user4012
    Dec 17, 2016 at 23:59
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    @SJuan76 No. Charging former US officials in US courts for violations of US law (US law incorporates the Geneva Conventions) is not a violation of sovereign immunity.
    – cpast
    Dec 18, 2016 at 19:41
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    @DrunkCynic - no, that's an imaginary line to excuse torture. If you look at the definition of torture that's in the conventions, it fits. This "enhanced interrogation" is merely weasel-wording so they can claim it's not torture, when it is. May 19, 2017 at 13:23
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    @DrunkCynic - a line created by, mostly, a single lawyer (John Yoo), who was told to craft an opinion out of a desired conclusion. A line which has been largely ridiculed by the legal community and subsequently invalidated by legions of lawyers who followed. It's a line that was found to be utterly lacking in any kind of credibility: nytimes.com/2004/06/25/world/…, and: scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/…. May 19, 2017 at 13:42

5 Answers 5


"International courts" ... "international laws"

Laws and most courts are national, not international. The Geneva conventions in particular are not law.

Now there is an International Criminal Court, in The Hague (Netherlands), but the US would rather invade The Hague than submit to ICC rulings. That's not exaggerating, the US has a (domestic) law on the books for precisely that purpose. ("The Hague Invasion Act"). The reason for the law is obvious, from your very question. There's not much doubt that many high-ranking US politicians and military would be found guilty of war crimes.

  • 3
    This answer could benefit for some references. You could, for example, quote the relevant sections of the American Service-Members' Protection Act (the official name of the "Hague Invasion Act"). You also need to explain why there are no prosecutions at criminal or military courts under US jurisdiction.
    – Philipp
    Dec 20, 2016 at 15:02
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    Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions by or against US soldiers or US nationals are crimes under US law. The Geneva Conventions are law in the United States.
    – cpast
    Dec 20, 2016 at 16:40
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    @cpast: If you're a lawyer, you'll point out that 18 U.S. Code § 2441 is law, and the Geneva Conventions are a treaty referenced by that law. That's a common situation - many treaties even require the signatories to adopt the treaty terms in national law. That is precisely because the treaty is not otherwise binding on individuals.
    – MSalters
    Dec 20, 2016 at 16:54
  • @cpast "Grave breaches" are a rather notably different thing from "breaches", and is subject to much more interpretation. May 15, 2018 at 22:01

The Geneva Conventions aren't really a law but more of an agreement. And while the human rights, which are laws, are based on them, doesn't make them as binding as the actual human rights. The other problem is, who is enforcing these Conventions. The US have a strong military and even more important, their economy includes the heart of the global finance industry and they are good customers to most more influential countries. Which means whoever would say no to the US, will have to deal with economical difficulties and if they are not within the closer circle of fiends, they have to fear military aggression.

Now the UN and NATO aren't really affected by this but they come with their own problems. NATO is carried mostly by the military power of the US, so standing against the US, would cost them huge parts of their power and rendering them weak. If allies of the US, like European States will join the US in leaving, NATO would be history. The UN on the other hand has the problem of relevance. When the US wanted the Iraq war, the UN was first against it but when it became clear that the US aren't likely to stop, the UN had to change their "no" into a "maybe" because if the mayor executive "branch" would have distanced itself from the UN. The UN would have lost its relevance.

That is mostly why the US can ignore these "rules" without having to fear too much consequences.

  • 3
    I fundamentally think you have the right answer, but I had to downvote this. Your argument is not very supportive of your conclusion, and you touch on far too many things that are unsupported. If you tighten this up and support your claims with references, I would switch to an upvote. Dec 18, 2016 at 3:48
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    Of course treaties have the force of law.
    – user9790
    Dec 18, 2016 at 22:19

The Geneva conventions state explicitly that they apply when the opposing side accepts and applies them. Obviously, Al Qaeda doesn't apply them, so the US is under no obligation. Some countries, including the US, have at times chosen to apply them even when the other side doesn't. But by their own terms, the conventions don't require that.


International law (IL) is made up of, among other things, ratified treaties. The four Geneva Conventions are ratified treaties and therefore most certainly part of international law. Specifically, a branch of it called International humanitarian law.

In IL, treaties are binding and therefore the signatories to the Geneva Convention which includes the United States are bound by them.

Then there is the question whether IL actually is law or not. The answer is yes, it is real law. Powerful states sometimes violates IL and gets away with it. Much in the same way as powerful individuals can skirt the law or how Mexican drug cartels can operate in extrajudicial vacuums. IL can't always be enforced but that does not mean that it does not exist. Anthony D'Amato, one of the most esteemed scholars in IL, explores this question in much more detail.

His quote of Louis Henkin is telling: "almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time." Most of it is mundane stuff, like border and free trade agreements which even the US almost always abides by

Back to the main question. The US hasn't ratified the Rome Statue of the ICC and therefore does not recognize the court's jurisdiction over its citizens.

However, IL is, in principle, not optional. In the essay The ICC's Jurisdiction Over the Nationals of NonParty States: A Critique of the U.S. Position by Michael P. Scharf discusses this question. Citing his conclusion:

The analysis of the historic precedent and principles of international law contained in this article has shown the ICC's jurisdiction over the nationals of nonparty states to be well-grounded in international law. The exercise of such jurisdiction can be based both on the universality principle and the territoriality principle.

The core crimes within the ICC's jurisdiction-genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes-are crimes of universal jurisdiction. The negotiating record of the Rome Treaty indicates that the consent regime was layered upon the ICC's universal jurisdiction over these crimes, such that with the consent of the state in whose territory the offense was committed, the court has the authority to issue indictments over the nationals of non-pmiy states. The Nuremberg tribunal and the ad hoc tribunal for the former Yugoslavia provide precedent for the collective delegation of universal jurisdiction to an international criminal court without the consent of the state of the nationality of the accused.

(I don't want to cite it in full due to copyright concerns.)

In short, the ICC is within its right to press charges against US citizens. In fact, the court is currently investigating alleged war crimes in Afghanistan which could implicate US servicemen. Obviously, given the current American administration's hostility towards the court, it is very unlikely for an American to stand trial -- but you never know. My guess is that the court realizes that too and therefore decides to focus on war criminals they can catch, rather than those they can't.


They have. Italy has charged and convicted 23 CIA agents in an extraordinary rendition (kidnapping) case, in absentia.


Italy’s high court has upheld the sentences of 23 CIA operatives convicted of kidnapping a Muslim cleric under the U.S. program of “extraordinary rendition.” The cleric, Abu Omar, was seized from the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt, where he was tortured during a four-year imprisonment. The Americans were all convicted in absentia after the United States refused to hand them over.

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