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War and Conflict

It was after World War I, then known as the “Great War,” that social workers became aware of “shell shock,” the trauma that many soldiers experienced after battle. Shell shock has now received the formal diagnostic name of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As our knowledge regarding the impact of violence and conflict on the human psyche has expanded, so have the categories of people experiencing it. Those affected by war are no longer primarily soldiers. No longer are there clearly defined battle lines in wars between nations; the impact of conflict spreads far beyond the battlefields. Wars today are often fought within nations between governments and rebel groups, rather than between nations.

As discussed in Chapter 2, the Geneva Conventions are the central documents for the humane treatment of people involved in conflict, whether they are combatants or civilians. The American Red Cross (2011, p. 2) states that “The Geneva Conventions apply in all cases of declared war, or in any other armed conflict between nations. They also apply in cases where a nation is partially or totally occupied by soldiers of another nation, even when there is no armed resistance to that occupation.” All nations in the world are parties to the conventions. These treaties are categorized under a branch of law known as international humanitarian law; this section of law is founded on the principles of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality (American Red Cross, 2011).

The central tenets of the conventions require that warring parties make distinctions between combatants and civilians and provide protection for those civilians. Soldiers “placed out of combat” by sickness, wounds, or detention must be given medical care and treated humanely, regardless of on which side they fought. The taking of hostages and the torture of prisoners of war is expressly forbidden. Additionally, a representative from a neutral “protecting power” must have access to any person detained; this power is most commonly the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights supports these principles found in the Geneva Conventions. Article 5 states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The impact of conflict on civilians is also addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 14 provides rights to refugees and asylum seekers: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The primary document in establishing who is a refugee, together with their rights and responsibilities, is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, together with its 1967 Protocol (UNHCR, 2011).

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