Guantanamo versus Geneva

Look, I was really trying for a self-imposed moritorium on war-related links, because I'm sure those of you who give a shit about such things are already reading Tom Tomorrow (modrnwrld_blog), but this one I just couldn't resist:

One rule for them

This being so, Rumsfeld had better watch his back. For this enthusiastic convert to the cause of legal warfare is, as head of the defence department, responsible for a series of crimes sufficient, were he ever to be tried, to put him away for the rest of his natural life.

His prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, where 641 men (nine of whom are British citizens) are held, breaches no fewer than 15 articles of the third convention. The US government broke the first of these (article 13) as soon as the prisoners arrived, by displaying them, just as the Iraqis have done, on television. In this case, however, they were not encouraged to address the cameras. They were kneeling on the ground, hands tied behind their backs, wearing blacked-out goggles and earphones. In breach of article 18, they had been stripped of their own clothes and deprived of their possessions. They were then interned in a penitentiary (against article 22), where they were denied proper mess facilities (26), canteens (28), religious premises (34), opportunities for physical exercise (38), access to the text of the convention (41), freedom to write to their families (70 and 71) and parcels of food and books (72).

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One rule for them

Suddenly, the government of the United States has discovered the virtues of international law. It may be waging an illegal war against a sovereign state; it may be seeking to destroy every treaty which impedes its attempts to run the world, but when five of its captured soldiers were paraded in front of the Iraqi television cameras on Sunday, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, immediately complained that "it is against the Geneva convention to show photographs of prisoners of war in a manner that is humiliating for them".

He is, of course, quite right. Article 13 of the third convention, concerning the treatment of prisoners, insists that they "must at all times be protected... against insults and public curiosity". This may number among the less heinous of the possible infringements of the laws of war, but the conventions, ratified by Iraq in 1956, are non-negotiable. If you break them, you should expect to be prosecuted for war crimes.

This being so, Rumsfeld had better watch his back. For this enthusiastic convert to the cause of legal warfare is, as head of the defence department, responsible for a series of crimes sufficient, were he ever to be tried, to put him away for the rest of his natural life.

His prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, where 641 men (nine of whom are British citizens) are held, breaches no fewer than 15 articles of the third convention. The US government broke the first of these (article 13) as soon as the prisoners arrived, by displaying them, just as the Iraqis have done, on television. In this case, however, they were not encouraged to address the cameras. They were kneeling on the ground, hands tied behind their backs, wearing blacked-out goggles and earphones. In breach of article 18, they had been stripped of their own clothes and deprived of their possessions. They were then interned in a penitentiary (against article 22), where they were denied proper mess facilities (26), canteens (28), religious premises (34), opportunities for physical exercise (38), access to the text of the convention (41), freedom to write to their families (70 and 71) and parcels of food and books (72).

They were not "released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities" (118), because, the US authorities say, their interrogation might, one day, reveal interesting information about al-Qaida. Article 17 rules that captives are obliged to give only their name, rank, number and date of birth. No "coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever". In the hope of breaking them, however, the authorities have confined them to solitary cells and subjected them to what is now known as "torture lite": sleep deprivation and constant exposure to bright light. Unsurprisingly, several of the prisoners have sought to kill themselves, by smashing their heads against the walls or trying to slash their wrists with plastic cutlery.

The US government claims that these men are not subject to the Geneva conventions, as they are not "prisoners of war", but "unlawful combatants". The same claim could be made, with rather more justice, by the Iraqis holding the US soldiers who illegally invaded their country. But this redefinition is itself a breach of article 4 of the third convention, under which people detained as suspected members of a militia (the Taliban) or a volunteer corps (al-Qaida) must be regarded as prisoners of war.

Even if there is doubt about how such people should be classified, article 5 insists that they "shall enjoy the protection of the present convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal". But when, earlier this month, lawyers representing 16 of them demanded a court hearing, the US court of appeals ruled that as Guantanamo Bay is not sovereign US territory, the men have no constitutional rights. Many of these prisoners appear to have been working in Afghanistan as teachers, engineers or aid workers. If the US government either tried or released them, its embarrassing lack of evidence would be brought to light.

You would hesitate to describe these prisoners as lucky, unless you knew what had happened to some of the other men captured by the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan. On November 21 2001, around 8,000 Taliban soldiers and Pashtun civilians surrendered at Konduz to the Northern Alliance commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Many of them have never been seen again.

As Jamie Doran's film Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death records, some hundreds, possibly thousands, of them were loaded into container lorries at Qala-i-Zeini, near the town of Mazar-i-Sharif, on November 26 and 27. The doors were sealed and the lorries were left to stand in the sun for several days. At length, they departed for Sheberghan prison, 80 miles away. The prisoners, many of whom were dying of thirst and asphyxiation, started banging on the sides of the trucks. Dostum's men stopped the convoy and machine-gunned the containers. When they arrived at Sheberghan, most of the captives were dead.

The US special forces running the prison watched the bodies being unloaded. They instructed Dostum's men to "get rid of them before satellite pictures can be taken". Doran interviewed a Northern Alliance soldier guarding the prison. "I was a witness when an American soldier broke one prisoner's neck. The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them." Another soldier alleged: "They took the prisoners outside and beat them up, and then returned them to the prison. But sometimes they were never returned, and they disappeared."

Many of the survivors were loaded back in the containers with the corpses, then driven to a place in the desert called Dasht-i-Leili. In the presence of up to 40 US special forces, the living and the dead were dumped into ditches. Anyone who moved was shot. The German newspaper Die Zeit investigated the claims and concluded that: "No one doubted that the Americans had taken part. Even at higher levels there are no doubts on this issue." The US group Physicians for Human Rights visited the places identified by Doran's witnesses and found they "all... contained human remains consistent with their designation as possible grave sites".

It should not be necessary to point out that hospitality of this kind also contravenes the third Geneva convention, which prohibits "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture", as well as extra-judicial execution. Donald Rumsfeld's department, assisted by a pliant media, has done all it can to suppress Jamie Doran's film, while General Dostum has begun to assassinate his witnesses.

It is not hard, therefore, to see why the US government fought first to prevent the establishment of the international criminal court, and then to ensure that its own citizens are not subject to its jurisdiction. The five soldiers dragged in front of the cameras yesterday should thank their lucky stars that they are prisoners not of the American forces fighting for civilisation, but of the "barbaric and inhuman" Iraqis.

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14 Responses:

  1. harryh says:

    There was a K5 article on this here.

    Several of the posters indicated that the US was technically not in violation of any international law due to the fact that the prisoners being held were not soldiers under the terms of Geneva. I'm not certain if these posters were correct or not, but there is a fair ammount of discussion if you're curious.

    • jwz says:

      The article addressed that (paras 6 and 7.)

      Man, I'm sure not wading through that K5 flamewar. I generally find the articles and discussions there irritatingly self-congratulatory in that way that only lifetime grad students can be.

      • harryh says:

        Ya, I didn't really wade through either. I'm just saying that the legality of the situation is possibly open to interpretation. Of course we're assuming here that the words "international law" actually have meaning in the RealWorld(tm), an assumption that is dubious at best.

        K5 used to be awesome, but over the last 6 months or so it's started to attract enough people that the signal to noise has gone way down. It's the way of the web I suppose, gotta move on to somewhere else for my socio-econimic-political discussion.

  2. ralesk says:

    Interesting points.

  3. w_b_yeats says:

    There are no "rules of war". The rules that currently exist are only there until things get nasty.

    Like some serf fighting the most powerful military on earth. Or a group of trained killers getting fired upon by plain cloths guerilla fighters.

    When one is getting shot at or someone's country is getting bombed in to oblivion does not care at all about the "rules" of warfare.

    This article goes way to far though. The Iraqis will no doubt exploit what ever advantages they have to their fullest. If that means a mock trail and then a public execution of the pilots then that's what is going to happen. The US on the other hand would never parade POW's on camera. Why? because they have nothing to gain by doing it. In this war they also wouldn't torture anyone because the risk would be to great. If the news got out it would destroy what's left of the moral upper hand. This isn't to say the US wouldn't "accidentally" kill some fighter that was trying to surrender.

    War is about winning the long term (no matter how it's done), it's about tactics and manipulation and death. The rules of warfare are just another propaganda piece to be used when necessary. Why don't people get that?

    This event shouldn't surprise anyone.

    • 33mhz says:

      The article: The US government broke the first of these (article 13) as soon as the prisoners arrived, by displaying them, just as the Iraqis have done, on television. In this case, however, they were not encouraged to address the cameras. They were kneeling on the ground, hands tied behind their backs, wearing blacked-out goggles and earphones.

      You: The US on the other hand would never parade POW's on camera. Why? because they have nothing to gain by doing it.

      • w_b_yeats says:

        Perhaps I should clarify. The US wouldn't do that in Iraq. Note also in the above mentioned article, it was the Northern alliance troops that did the actually killing. The US just didn't feel the need to publicize it.

        Different war different strategy.

        In Afghanistan the American people where looking to find the results of the "war on Terror"

        Iraq has a much more delectate political structure. The objective is regime change.

  4. chronicfreetime says:

    I'm curious to see this documentary. I have to forget they were Taliban soldiers to have any sympathy for them as human beings, though. Or convince myself that their lives were so awful that fighting for fundamentalism somehow seemed like a reasonable idea.

    • hwsnbn says:

      This documentary screened here about a month ago, and I have to say that the summary in the article does not do it justice - the reality of the situation appeared to be a great deal worse. Many of the people in the prison in question appeared to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others were rounded up or considered suspect merely because they spoke the same langague as the Taliban soldiers.

      This article, while busily railing against Newsweek, provides further detail.

  5. transiit says:

    http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20030324-064259-1443r

    Morocco's offering monkeys for clearing out minefields.

    Courtesy of Dave Barry's weblog.

    -transiit

  6. slithytove says:

    I don't have the time to look up all this stuff, but some of it obviously false. For example, "freedom to write to their families (70 and 71)". The Red Cross has transferred over 3300 personal messages for the prisoners. And mess facilities? (26) A mosque? (34) These are believed to be al Qaeda. They don't respect the Geneva convention themselves: al Qaeda faked their surrender and then killed their captors. There's no way in hell large groups of them are going to be allowed in the same place at the same time. It's not safe, and they've proven they will misuse the privilege. Is the Red Cross or Amnesty International really complaining about this stuff? My impression is that their major complaint is that they think the prisoners should receive a definite disposition (i.e., either being charged with crimes, or released).

    • ralesk says:

         "If they don't why would WE have to, then?" --- very bad way to act.  This is like if I said, hey, there are millions of people who kill and never get caught, they obviously don't follow the law, so WHY SHOULD I?  I have all the right to do so.  (Which, yes, is a borked example, as I do have all the right to do so, but I do hope you see what I meant with it.)

    • aig says:

      It depends how careful you are with prisoners. A proper arrest operation should not have allowed prisoners the opportunity to retaliate. Ask any NYC cop about how to take someone prisoner. If an armed soldier cannot securely take someone prisoner then they have no business being a soldier.

      Prisons in Northern Ireland have successfully dealt with large groups of terrorist prisoners and allowed them a lot of freedom with only a few incidents. Check out the Maze Prison history for more details.

      Facilities also can be tightly controlled. Mess facilities can be limited to at most 5 or 10 prisoners, same goes with freedom of religion.