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Senator McCain Spoke Out Against Torture and Stood Up for the Geneva Conventions

Senator John McCain
Photo credit: Hector Emanuel

Senator John McCain—a long-serving legislator and a fierce advocate of the Geneva Conventions—passed away on Saturday, August 25, at the age of 81.

As a prisoner in North Vietnam from 1967-1973, Senator McCain was tortured by his captors. He was refused medical treatment for a period of time and placed in solitary confinement for two years.

His experience as a detainee forged his convictions about the rights of prisoners and inspired him to speak out against torture.

“War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality. The Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross were created in response to the stark recognition of the true horrors of unbounded war. And I thank God for that. I am thankful for those of us whose dignity, health and lives have been protected by the Conventions,” remarked Senator McCain in 1999.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting, such as humanitarian aid workers, medics, and civilians—and those who can no longer fight, such wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and as prisoners of war.

They form the core of International Humanitarian Law: a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restrict the means and methods of warfare. Learn more about the Geneva Conventions here.

Senator McCain continued, “I am certain we all would have been a lot worse off if there had not been the Geneva Conventions around which an international consensus formed about some very basic standards of decency that should apply even amid the cruel excesses of war. Again, I am proud to salute the promise of humanity represented by the Conventions and the Red Cross. And I accept with gratitude my personal debt to everyone involved in defending human dignity with courage and dedication.”

During his time as a lawmaker in the United States, Senator McCain consistently spoke out against torture and urged for humanity in war. His life and legacy has profoundly influenced United States law and policy, and left an impression on the hearts of many.

Senator McCain’s advocacy for the greater good is best articulated by the man himself, who said at a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, “I discovered that nothing is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself; something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone.”

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