Maurice Vassie,
29 October 2016

In the war against terrorism the meeting of force with force, it is the terrorists, who draw up the rules of engagement that apply equally to counter-terrorist forces. When we take armed action against terrorists the nature of the conflict necessitates our fighting according to their rules. It is axiomatic that human life has no value except as a means of achieving a political ends. A terrorist is expected to be ready to give his life as a suicide bomber for example, and to take the life of others to gain attention, or to take out an enemy and any innocent bystanders that happen to be near him. That inhumanity is reflected in the counter-terrorist response.

It is a war in which the enemy is not defined by nationality or race or any physical feature. In an area in which a terrorist or counter-terrorist force is operating, the enemy is any individual, who does not accept the authority of the fighter and who is deemed ready to resist actively that authority. Such an individual is seen as putting himself beyond being treated humanely. If when he is targeted he is in the company of other people, whether self-designated enemies or non-combatants, his arrest or elimination takes precedents over their human rights.

It follows that a terrorist will be expected to have no compunction in locating himself in a family group, or among schoolchildren or in a hospital. Similarly a counter-terrorist is not expected to refrain from arresting by force or eliminating a terrorist even if that action puts the lives of civilians at risk or denies them their human rights: as for example destroying a vehicle in which an identified terrorist is a passenger although other passengers include women and children, or destroying a hospital treating terrorists.

It is accepted by counter-terrorists that since terrorists may and usually do operate as individuals or as ad hoc groups their identities can only be determined from recorded or printed records, or by informers. This is seen in practice as justifing torture and housebreaking. It is acceptance of the fact that counter-terrorism by force cannot be undertaken effectively if conducted in accordance with the internationally agreed Convention of  War.

It is nation states that have drawn up and signed the several Conventions of War and sanctions can be imposed on those nations that break them. Terrorist groups are not nation states; they are not and cannot be a party to them, they set their own rules of engagement.

By committing our armed forces to engage in a form of warfare, which is not covered by internationally agreed conventions, the U.K. is exposing our soldiers to situations where they may not be able to safeguard themselves by restricting the use of force, including lethal force, to instances where a clear distinction can be made between combatants and civilians. We may be requiring them to act against the traditions and national ethos of the United Kingdom.

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