The Consortium On-line is a product of The Consortium for Independent Journalism, Inc. To contact CIJ, click here.
W.'s War on the Environment
The 2000 Campaign
The Clinton Scandals
Nazi Echo (Pinochet)
The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
The October Surprise "X-Files"
The day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, George W. Bush assured Americans that we will rally the world in building a coalition to punish those responsible.
The world did rally.
Virtually every government expressed outrage at the murder of an estimated 3,000
civilians. Around the world, U.S. allies and adversaries condemned the terrorism
unequivocally. Most of that international support held through the U.S.-led attack against
Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda operatives and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.
But many U.S. allies now
believe that the Bush administration is veering back to its pre-Sept. 11 strategy of
go-it-alone unilateralism, reasserting a studied contempt for international agreements and
ignoring world opinion.
Europeans, who rallied to the
U.S. cause after Sept. 11, are leading the protests against Bush's selective application
of the Geneva Conventions toward prisoners at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Allies
were troubled, too, by Bushs belligerent State of the Union address designating
Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an axis of evil. And the allies are upset at
Bush's continued snubbing of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.
Having won on the battlefields
of Afghanistan, the Bush administration now risks losing the world's support that is vital
in the long-term battle against terrorism. The turning of world opinion against aspects of
U.S. policy is especially striking given the near-universal support after Sept. 11.
Immediately after the attacks,
the United Nations, the European Union and other multilateral organizations expressed
solidarity with the United States. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
condemned the slaughter in New York and outside Washington as an attack on the whole
of the international community.
I went to the vigil outside the
U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark, and saw a scene repeated on sidewalks in front of
U.S. embassies everywhere a sea of flowers, candles, notes and even New York
Yankees baseball caps. There was a belief that Sept. 11 changed everything and
imbued a hope for multilateral cooperation to build a better and safer world.
Even countries not natural U.S. allies, such as Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union, offered help. They hatched secret bilateral agreements trading assistance in the U.S. attack on Afghanistan for U.S. help in fighting their own terrorist threats.
One of the first signs,
however, that Bush might overplay his hand was his excessive rhetoric as he vowed to mount
a "crusade" that would "rid the world of evil."
While the war in Afghanistan
drew widespread international support, some U.S. actions caused concern. Possibly
thousands of Afghan civilians died as the U.S. dropped "cluster bombs" and
"Daisy Cutters" and used other highly lethal ordnance. The U.S. government also
seemed willing to tolerate human rights abuses by new U.S. allies who saw the war on
terrorism as a carte blanche to rid themselves of troublesome dissidents.
But the turning point of Bush's
regression to unilateralism appears to have been his decision to effectively waive the
Geneva Conventions as they pertained to Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners who surrendered in
Afghanistan and were flown to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.
The international outcry over
Camp X-Ray began when the living conditions of the prisoners were revealed, and
particularly after photographs were released showing the detainees in open-air cages being
subjected to what looked like sensory deprivation techniques.
The Politikken article called
the contras terrorists and implied that Washington acted hypocritically, picking and
choosing which international laws to follow and which to ignore.
In an article about Camp X-Ray,
The Mirror of London admonished Prime Minister Tony Blair to stop this brutality in
our name, saying these prisoners are trapped in open cages, manacled hand and
foot, brutalized, tortured and humiliated.
Human rights groups weighed in.
Amnesty International expressed concern about the tactics being used and the secrecy
surrounding the camp. Keeping prisoners incommunicado, sensory deprivation, the use
of unnecessary restraint and the humiliation of people through tactics such as shaving
them, are all classic techniques employed to break the spirit of individuals
ahead of interrogation, the human rights group said.
British human rights attorney
Stephen Solley said the treatment of the suspects was so far removed from human
rights norms that it [was] difficult to comprehend.
The issue of POW status was
central to the debate. If detainees are deemed POWs, they are accorded certain rights by
the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, of which the U.S. is
a signatory party. Among these rights is to be housed in quarters comparable to those of
the Detaining Powers soldiers, which the U.S. is clearly not doing. As
Article 25 states: Prisoners of war shall be quartered under conditions as favorable
as those for the forces of the Detaining Power who are billeted in the same area.
To counter international
criticism, Bush's spokesmen have alleged that the captives are not soldiers in the normal
sense but dangerous criminals, though evidence of individual guilt has not been presented.
The administration contends the
prisoners are "unlawful combatants" who did not follow the conventions of war as
enumerated in Article 4 of the Conventions, that is, they have no responsible command and
do not carry their arms openly, wear uniforms with distinct insignia or conduct their
operations within the laws and customs of war.
So, the administration claims
the Conventions do not apply and the U.S. does not have to follow standards for treating
the prisoners as POWs. Still, the administration has said it is treating the detainees
The administration's defense
prompted an international response rebuffing Bush's arguments. The debate shaped up as
If detainees statuses are
in doubt, a competent tribunal must be convened to determine their status.
Before that is done, the detainees must be accorded the rights of a POW. According to
Article 5, Should any doubt arise as to whether persons ... belong to any of the
categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present
Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent
The provision makes clear that
as long as the U.S. does not treat them as POWs or does not bring the prisoners before a
competent tribunal to determine their status, the U.S. is violating the Convention or
simply disregarding it.
It could be argued that the al
Qaeda fighters can be characterized as members of a militia or a volunteer corps linked to
the Taliban. But whether the exclusions apply, as the Bush administration contends, would
depend on specific factual determinations that have not been explained.
In its description of the al
Qaeda fighters as "unlawful combatants," the Bush administration also could be
criticized for practicing selective judgments given the history of al Qaeda. Many of the
Arab units that formed al Qaeda including those under Osama bin Laden were
first brought to Afghanistan in the 1980s as part of the CIA-backed war against Soviet
forces. In that context, U.S. officials regarded bin Laden's Arab units as international
Political arguments aside, the
question of U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions would hinge on the findings of a
competent tribunal that has not been established. Since human rights groups and the U.N.
High Commissioner on Human Rights have expressed doubt as to the POW status, the Geneva
Conventions seem clear that a tribunal is needed to determine the status of individual
prisoners, to find out whether they are Taliban or al Qaeda fighters, and to clarify the
relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
In recent weeks, Bush seems to
have recognized his weak legal position, although he remains politically buoyed by the
American public's disinterest in the legal niceties of international law. The lingering
fury over Sept. 11 has freed Bush's hand to give only token concessions to the world
Still, after several
governments warned that the U.S. was weakening the foundations of international law,
Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Bush to reverse his position and declare the
detainees prisoners of war. In response, on Feb. 7, Bush finally agreed to apply the
Geneva Conventions, but adopted such a narrow interpretation that the shift seems largely
rhetorical. Nothing effectively changed.
In justifying this position,
the White House maintained that the war on terrorism is a war not envisaged when the
Geneva Convention was signed in 1949. The White House said, the Convention
simply does not cover every situation in which people may be captured or detained by
In a larger sense, Bush seemed
to be asserting a personal right to decide when well-established treaties and
international agreements should be applied and when ignored.
As for the detainees at
Guantanamo, the White House said many POW privileges will be provided. Some of
the privileges include water, medical care, shelter, showers and soap. Denied,
however, will be access to a canteen to purchase food, a monthly advance of pay, or the
ability to receive scientific equipment, musical instruments or sports outfits. The
administration also made clear that the living conditions of the detainees would not be
altered to be in line with the rights of POWs.
But that argument may be beside
the point. Nothing in the Geneva Conventions prohibits interrogation, even of prisoners of
war. Article 17 simply states that every prisoner of war, when questioned on the
subject, is bound to give only his surname, first names and rank, date of birth, and army,
regimental, personal or serial number, or failing this, equivalent information. If
prisoners refuse to give that information, they may have privileges taken away.
Experts on the Geneva
Conventions point out that even if the U.S. were to classify the detainees as prisoners of
war, interrogations could proceed. All that would be prohibited would be coercive
techniques to extract answers.
Whatever the reason for Bush's
refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions fully to the detainees, it is angering allies and
organizations that oversee humane treatment of POWs. The controversy also is putting in
jeopardy the cooperation that had marked Europe's largest-ever police investigations
against terrorism. European critics fear, too, that norms of international law may be
rendered obsolete in the future, or at least more difficult to enforce.
On Feb. 8, the Red Cross called both the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters prisoners of war fully protected by the Geneva Conventions. They were captured in combat (and) we consider them prisoners of war, ICRC spokesperson Darcy Christen told Reuters. The Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights also reiterated their position that any dispute over the status of a prisoner must be settled by a tribunal and not by one side of the conflict.
This is international law
à la carte, like multilateralism à la carte," one West European ambassador told the
International Herald Tribune. "It annoys your allies in the war against terrorism,
and it creates problems for our Muslim allies, too. It puts at stake the moral credibility
of the war against terrorism.
This view holds that Washington
is asserting an American exceptionalism in which the U.S. will apply international law
when it wants, such as after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, while ignoring the rules when
they are inconvenient to U.S. interests. That selectivity comes with a price, however. It
erodes the world's respect for legal principles while spreading a worldwide cynicism that
might makes right.
Without the moral
credibility that comes with equal application of law, the ability to pressure others
to respect international law and human rights is weakened. It also becomes more difficult
to frame the war against terrorism as a battle between civilized values and barbarism.
Allies are concerned that Bush
is slipping back into his pre-Sept. 11 unilateralism. Bush earned that early reputation by
backing out of international accords, such as Kyoto Accord and the Anti-Ballistic Missile
Treaty, while refusing to cooperate in establishing an International Criminal Court as
proposed by the UN.
By brushing aside the Geneva
Conventions, Bush has shown again his intent to go it alone when he chooses, even while
seeking international cooperation in a global struggle to contain the terrorist threat.
His emphasis on a military solution also goes against the views of many world leaders who
say the roots of terrorism must be addressed.
Roots of Terrorism
One of those roots is the
disparity of wealth in the world, with billions living in abject poverty and a relatively
few rich countries enjoying prosperity. This situation fosters an atmosphere of
resentment, which can easily spill over into hatred and violence.
This phenomenon can be seen
playing out in some of the stan countries of Central Asia, where government
repression of legitimate political activity has spawned militant fundamentalist groups
that see violence as the only way to effect change.
The cultural clash between a
globalization-led takeover of local communities on the one hand and a consciousness of
tribal identities on the other is another factor that feeds extremism and violence.
Terrorism also is closely linked to organized crime, another problem that requires
cooperation and intelligence sharing among nations.
"We may well put down
terror in its present manifestations. But if we do not attend to the larger fundamentals
as well, then the ground is fertile and has been seeded for the next generation of those
born to hate us, who will hold these things up before the world's poor and dispossessed,
and say that all these things are in our image, and rekindle the war we are now hoping to
snuff out," Gore said.
The former vice president, who outpolled Bush for the presidency in 2000 but still lost the White House, noted the difference between the Clinton-Gore attitude toward the world and the Bush view.
"The administration in
which I served looked at the challenges we faced in the world and said we wished to tackle
these 'With others, if possible; alone, if we must.' This administration seems inclined to
stand that on its head, so that the message is: 'With others, if we must; by ourselves, if
possible,'" Gore said.
Bush administration may believe that Europe and other allies have little choice but to get
in line once the U.S. launches Phase Two of the war to rid the world of evil. But already,
many allies are warning that they will balk at an attack on rogue states, such