Fifteen British Royal Naval officers have been returned after nearly two weeks of captivity in Iran. The sailors were detained by Iranians after an encounter in which British vessels were searching the area for smuggled goods. The Iranians contest that British vessels had wandered into Iranian waters, while the British maintain they were within Iraqi territory. According to a report by the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU), "[n]o maritime boundary has ever been agreed between Iran and Iraq." The British coordinates of the detention technically lie on territorial, not maritime, land. On the other hand, the Iranians had supplied two separate coordinates, with the revised coordinates laying 0.3 nautical miles within Iranian maritime boundaries. According to the IBRU report, maritime boundaries are variable.
Of further contention is the treatment of the British sailors by the Iranian government. Were they hostages, or prisoners of war (POW's)? If we follow the coordinates supplied by the UK, then Iran entered Iraqi waters to seize the British sailors, which could be viewed as an act of aggression. Could not the same allegation be made if Britain had wandered into Iranian waters? If the former, then the British sailors were hostages, if the latter, then they could be viewed as de facto POW's. In either event, the circumstances of their treatment should reflect customary law.
Minimum standards of justice must be adhered to by civilized nations. In the Third Geneva Conventions, we find that "prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity." If the British sailors were instead hostages, the Fourth Geneva Conventions outline that as a violation, but also deals with detention and humane treatment of spies. In any event, there is a baseline of acceptable treatment which must be met.
The Iranians released several taped testimonials by British sailors with various degrees of apologies and statements of treatment. The sailors did not appear to be harmed, and were often depicted eating, and in one case are shown in front of a large bowl of what appears to be fresh fruit. The question of coercion, however, is certainly a legitimate question to consider. All soldiers shown have issued apologies admitting a violation of Iranian sovereign territory, as well as statements admonishing the conflict in Iraq. It could not be expected that military personnel would willingly rebuke their own government without some degree of coercion. It is customarily recognized that POW's are only required to release name, rank, serial number, and date of birth.
So, where do we look in international law? Iran and Britain are not at war, so the question regarding POW's is debatable. With Iranian and Iraqi borders in dispute and both parties offering different coordinates, the claims of hostage taking may also be in question. If we simply take the issue of customary international law to task, we can at least see what the consensual usage has been. If we look to the issue of "public curiosity', we see a wide range of displays in modern times. During the Iranian Revolution, media portrayals of American hostages were abundant. Prisoners of war have been shown publicly as well, from the detention of Lieutenant Commander John McCain in Vietnam to POW's during the Korean War. In more recent times, we see US behavior in its portrayal of the bodies Uday and Qusay Hussein as questionable and its habeas suspension and treatment of detainees at the facility in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib is widely admonished.
If we look to treaty law, we see violations abound, but if we examine customary usage, the issues are grim. Regarding the Iranian/British issue, the sailors at the very least appeared well treated and knew their charges. The same may not be said regarding US treatment of its detainees. International law and the customs of war derive from consensual usage and customs among civilized nations. Tolerance and dignity influence international law and customs. In the 21st century conflict between the West and the Rest, with whom does tolerance and dignity lie?
Map credit: International Boundaries Research Unit.