Main Image Credit Ukrainian soldiers seen walking through Lychakivske cemetery as they wait for the arrival of the caskets of the four Ukrainian soldiers killed in an airstrike on a military base in Yavariv near the Polish border. Courtesy of Alamy / Zuma Press
The increasing number of photographs of fallen soldiers in Ukraine has raised concerns about potential breaches of the Geneva Conventions. What do the Conventions say and how should this inform social and digital media posts?
Since Russia began its military invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the social media platforms Telegram and Twitter have become the go-to places to find or share information in both a military and a civilian context. A particularly shocking, striking or jubilant image can attract extraordinary levels of engagement and viewership within days. This digital culture of real-time documentation and sharing during a conflict has become a key characteristic for the way the public engages with the war. It is creating an evidence trail which can be used by Ukraine, Russia and the international community, increasingly shaping information campaigns and providing information which can inform an operational response.
Images shared have recorded the military presence within Ukraine, the damage inflicted on civilian areas and personal engagements with enemy forces. As the war has progressed, increasingly macabre images of the dead have been shared, prompting public debate as to whether the sharing of such images represents a breach of the Geneva Conventions. The argument often feels more clear-cut where the faces of the dead are shown, as it is often argued that sharing such an image could deny dignity to the family of the deceased, particularly if the shared image has resulted in the family learning of the death prior to receiving any official information. In recent days, social media has also been used to share images of bodies contained within flimsy body bags and stacked within chilled vehicles which have been used to transport large numbers of war dead back to Russia, but also to neighbouring Belarus, whose morgues are reportedly overflowing with Russian dead. These images will provide crucial evidence of the events which took place during the war, following its conclusion. But they currently leave many viewers feeling uncomfortable about any acts which deny dignity to the dead, and it is also unclear whether their very presence on the internet constitutes a crime under the Geneva Conventions. But, stated simply, what are the Conventions and what protections do they provide to the dead?
The first Geneva Convention came into effect in 1864 as an international treaty which attempted to create standards which would limit or mitigate the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians. The Convention was reviewed and updated in 1906 to include new articles which referred to the treatment of the dead and protected them from looting and mutilation. This was the first example of martial legislation which made specific reference to the dead. The Conventions were updated again in 1929 and later in 1949. The 1949 Conventions (Convention IV) were ratified by 196 counties and remain in use today, with some minor additions.
The Conventions have applied between Ukraine and Russia since 2014 following the invasion of Crimea, with Article 2 applying ‘to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance’. More relevant to this Commentary, Article 16 of Convention IV describes that: ‘As far as military considerations allow, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment’.
Furthermore, Article 34(1) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I dictates that: ‘The remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected’.
It could be argued that it is to Ukraine’s advantage to show images of the dead to gain international support for its military efforts, thus becoming a capability in its war
These sections are brief, and the ability to prosecute under them is likely to be subject to interpretation in many cases. For example, a photograph of the remains of four soldiers within an open mass grave shared via Twitter could be argued to be: an attempt to document the realities of a battle zone; an attempt to counter claims made by an enemy state; or an act which violates the dignity of the dead to further a military aim. As a result, it seems unlikely that private citizens or states will be prosecuted for posting pictures of the dead, even if they are deemed to have caused offence.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) 1988 Rome Statute describes that ‘committing outrages upon personal dignity’ constitutes a war crime, but it is difficult to find a shared definition as to what actions might be defined as an outrage to personal dignity which can be upheld across nations, faiths and cultures. The Geneva Conventions and the ICC Statute were both agreed during a period of film photography, and do not necessarily reflect the shift to digital and mobile photography, despite updates or revisions in recent years. As such, it does not reflect contemporary channels for war correspondence and reporting which increasingly revolve around social media.
Consequently, both pieces of legislation are likely to be difficult to uphold in a legal context with regards to the upload of images of the dead within social and traditional media. To complicate matters further, in 2019 Russia withdrew a declaration of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions, declining to engage with the protections described above, among others, which are extended to civilians as well as combatants. This means that the Russian state and individual Russians may decline to engage with attempts to prosecute under this legislation and it will be difficult to enforce any judgments without further political confrontation. These subtleties are important when reflecting on the ongoing war in Ukraine. It could be argued that it is to Ukraine’s advantage to show images of the dead to gain international support for its military efforts, thus becoming a capability in its war. Similarly, arguments could be made that Russia is using images of the dead as a terror tactic to intimidate the population. Photos shared by individuals from either state may be used to provide evidence of war crimes following the conclusion of the war, meaning we may not yet understand the full potential or use of images taken and shared during this conflict.
What Does This Mean for Social Media Users?
It is important to acknowledge that the Geneva Conventions go beyond holding signatory states and their armed forces to account, allowing for the prosecution of private citizens of signatory states. The ambiguity of the legislation which specifically applies to the dead means that any attempts to prosecute those who share images of the dead will likely depend on the interpretation of a court and/or its jury (if applicable). It will be hard to find a firm consensus within an international context, and, as such, prosecution appears unlikely except in the most extreme cases.
It is possible that any attempts to prosecute will be limited to cases where evidence suggests that images have been shared with the specific intent to humiliate the dead or cause direct distress to their families, which will be difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt in many, if not all, cases. The ambiguity of the sections previously described makes it difficult for individuals (the author included) to have certainty as to the applicability of the legislation.
Private citizens, media professionals, armed forces and state actors should consider the purpose of their posts to ensure they do not cause further harm or break any national or international laws
Despite the low risk of prosecution, it is still important to consider the moral issue at the heart of this debate – are we providing the dead with sufficient dignity? This is a difficult question, which will undoubtedly inspire a range of responses shaped by individual experience and culture. In a British civilian context, we would not consider it acceptable to share images of an individual killed as a result of a criminal act, particularly if the family had not yet been informed. In fact, sharing images of a crime scene in advance of a criminal trial could be considered an act which compromises the integrity of a criminal investigation. This Commentary does not seek to propose a blanket ban on the sharing of images which feature death, but rather to encourage private citizens, media professionals, armed forces and state actors to consider the purpose of their posts to ensure they do not cause further harm or break any national or international laws.
If in doubt, both private citizens and media professionals should pause to question their motivation for posting before hitting the send button. Images of the dead may have that ‘shock factor’ which tends to draw in a digital audience, but that does not always mean that it is morally appropriate to share such content.
Families may not yet have received formal notification to confirm the death of their loved one, and this should always be considered when discussing or sharing images of death where a post or published article could result in an identification. The use of sensitivity filters is also helpful in this context, if such images are deemed essential at the point of sharing. This can also help to protect young or vulnerable internet users from accessing distressing content without warning.
Time to Review the Conventions?
The Geneva Conventions provided pioneering humanitarian frameworks from their inception. They continue to act as a vital tool to reduce the impact of war on the wounded, the dead and civilians, and provide structures to hold individuals, military forces and states to account where standards fall short of international expectations as defined by the Conventions.
However, as this Commentary has shown, there are elements of the Conventions which appear to have become less relevant in the face of social media and internet cultures. This suggests that there is a need to reflect on the potential of revising the Conventions to refine the existing text and ensure that it is relevant to the way that we share information. This suggestion will likely not be popular, given the sheer volume of work involved and the efficiency of many other parts of the Conventions. However, digital information is already changing the way that wars are fought both below and above the threshold of traditional war. This year we have seen Ukraine and Russia each make excessive use of social media to manage the flow of information about the war within their own countries and within the international community. We have seen civilians leap into action to fight, to protect others and to document the war in real time. Online reporting has created a new culture of civil–military information campaigns, and it is time to ensure that this is reflected within international legislation in an effort to manage and maintain the dignity of those who have and will die in Ukraine, and those who will fall in wars to come.
This Commentary does not constitute formal legal advice. The views expressed here are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Sarah Ashbridge
Former Research Fellow