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Law lecturer says clarity required on animals used in war-time

06 September 2018

A senior law lecturer says so-called dogs of war – and other animals used in conflict – should be given more protection during combat and their status clarified.

Anna Marie Brennan of the University of Waikato says the Geneva Conventions covering conflict do not govern animals on the battlefield.  

Dr Brennan’s interest in the subject arose after hearing of a British military dog named Colonel who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2014 and kept as a prisoner of war.

Colonel had a rifle, a pistol and a GPS device strapped to him. The Taliban said they would treat the dog as a prisoner of war, and that he could potentially be used in an exchange of prisoners. He was eventually returned to the British army.

“It opened up this larger project looking at how we should see animals in the military and what regulations there are for them on the battlefield,” says Dr Brennan.

Dogs have been used in wars for centuries, and are considered more effective at detecting IEDs and enemy soldiers than any technology developed so far. Dr Brennan says numerous animals have been used on the frontline including donkeys, horses, rats and bears and there are experiments on bees to see if they can deliver chemical weapons. Armies have used military dolphins to clear mines and locate lost divers.

Dr Brennan says the Geneva Conventions are completely human-centric. “It would seem at the moment a dog like Colonel is classified as a weapon, and as a result he can be the legitimate target of an attack. If the dog was shot in conflict, is there a vet on the sideline who is able to administer aid to this dog? What legal obligations does the army unit he is in have to ensure the wellbeing of the animal. My argument is that there should be more protection.”

Dr Brennan says animals should be classified as halfway between weapons and soldiers. “But if you try to cover animals within the Geneva Conventions you would have to overhaul them, or at least add an additional protocol.”

Dr Brennan has been in touch with the New Zealand Defence Force. “It is my understanding they have utilised dogs in operations in the past. They classify their animals as equipment. But many armed forces give their dogs ranks, generally higher than the rank of their human handler. They decorate them with medals, and treat them as war heroes.”

Dr Anna Marie Brennan has just published a book, Transnational Terrorist Groups and International Criminal Law.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019