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International Law a la Carte

By Nat Parry
March 25, 2003

As U.S. forces encounter stiffer-than-expected resistance in Iraq, the Bush administration and the U.S. news media are gaining a sudden reverence for international law.

In the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, five American soldiers were captured and their images were broadcast Sunday on Iraqi TV. Bush administration officials immediately denounced the brief televised interviews with the prisoners as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

That charge was repeated over and over by U.S. television networks, which spared the American people the unpleasant sight of the halting conversations and other scenes of dead U.S. soldiers.

Not only did the U.S. news media censor the video on Sunday, U.S. television "reporters" stayed silent about the obvious inconsistency between their outrage over the footage of the American soldiers and the U.S. media's decision only a few days earlier to run repeated clips of Iraqis identified as prisoners of war.

In that case, Iraqi POWs were paraded before U.S. cameras as "proof" that Iraqi resistance was crumbling. Some of the scenes showed Iraqi POWs forced at gunpoint to kneel down with their hands behind their heads as they were patted down by U.S. soldiers.

Yet neither the Bush administration nor a single U.S. reporter covering the war for the major news networks observed how those scenes might be a violation of international law.

Then on Sunday, the same U.S. networks apparently "forgot" about the earlier scenes of Iraqi POWs and took up Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's charge that by showing videotape of U.S. POWs, the Iraqis had contravened the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

"It's illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating to those prisoners," Rumsfeld said.

Bush Repudiating Rules

The U.S. television networks also did not see fit to remind viewers how George W. Bush had drawn widespread international condemnation a year ago for his decision to strip prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan of their rights under the Geneva Conventions.

Bush ordered hundreds of captives from Afghanistan to be put in tiny outdoor cages at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Those prisoners were shaved bald and forced to kneel down with their eyes, ears and mouths covered to deprive them of their senses. The shackled prisoners were filmed being carried on stretchers to interrogation sessions. Their humiliation was broadcast widely for all the world to see.

In early 2002, U.S. allies objected to the humiliation of the prisoners and to Bush's assertion that the prisoners were "unlawful combatants" outside the protection of international law. One of the chief arguments from European and other nations was that by flouting the Geneva Conventions, Bush was weakening respect for international law, a development that could prove dangerous to U.S. and other soldiers in the future.

Some of the loudest criticism of Camp X-Ray came from the staunchest U.S. ally, the United Kingdom, where three cabinet ministers – Robin Cook, Patricia Hewitt and Jack Straw – expressed concern that the prisoners were not being treated well and that international agreements about the treatment of prisoners of war were being breached.

Legal experts pointed out that "unlawful combatant" is not a category recognized by international law. They also noted that detainees whose status is in any doubt must be accorded all rights enumerated in the Geneva Convention until a "competent tribunal" is established to determine each individual prisoner's legal status.

The Bush administration never established that "competent tribunal." Bush instead unilaterally declared which prisoners were POWs (with protections under the Geneva Convention) and which ones were to be considered "unlawful combatants" (with zero protections under the Geneva Convention).

Even those detainees that Bush deemed POWs were only granted some rights under the Convention, as determined by Bush. They were denied other rights, again as determined by Bush.

Devil's Island

Most of the prisoners from the Afghan war are still being held in Guantanamo in a state of legal limbo.

There has been no indication from the White House when, if ever, they will be released or brought before a tribunal. U.S. courts have determined that they have no jurisdiction over the Afghan prisoners, since the detainees are being held in Cuba at a base controlled by the U.S. military.

For its part, the U.S. military has said that the prisoners will be held until the end of the "war on terror," a war that Bush has said "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." In other words, this war may never end and the prisoners may spend the rest of their lives on a modern-day Devil's Island.

Human rights groups also have argued that the U.S. treatment of some prisoners may have crossed the line into torture, with the Bush administration using sensory deprivation techniques.

“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,” mistreatment that is specifically prohibited under the Geneva Convention, Amnesty International said.

Saddam's Complaint

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein picked up on this theme more than a year ago, in January 2002, when the controversy was at its height.

The Iraqi dictator, who has been broadly criticized for his own human rights record, claimed that the U.S. "used human rights and the rights of prisoners for propaganda purposes against other countries," when it served its purpose. "But when their turn came to uphold those rights, they openly violated them," he said.

Over the past year, there have been other allegations about Bush administration's abuse of captives from the "war on terror." The Washington Post reported that terrorist suspects were being subjected to "stress and duress" tactics, which in some cases could be considered forms of torture. [Washington Post, Dec. 26, 2002]

U.S. officials have admitted to the use of sleep deprivation in their interrogations of prisoners, a practice with ambiguous status in international law. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that when used for the purpose of breaking a prisoner's will, sleep deprivation "may in some cases constitute torture."

Senior U.S. officials have defended these dubious tactics, with one official maintaining that, "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job." He elaborated that the U.S. shouldn't be "promoting a view of zero tolerance on this. That was the whole problem for a long time with the CIA."

Virtually affirming the new U.S. policy of using torture in its interrogation techniques, Cofer Black, former head of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, told a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees on Sept. 26, 2002, that there was a new "operational flexibility" in dealing with suspected terrorists. He said that "There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off."

In response to the Washington Post article, Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth reminded the U.S. that “torture is always prohibited under any circumstances." He also warned that, “U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world.”

Threat to U.S. Troops

Some people have criticized Bush's handling of POWs on humanitarian grounds. Others have cited the need to maintain the system of international law put in place since World War II in large part by prior U.S. presidents.

But other critics have noted that once the U.S. disregards international norms in treatment of prisoners of war, it will undermine demands that other nations adhere to those rules when U.S. soldiers are captured in battle.

Veterans for Peace, for one, expressed "grave concern" for those serving in the U.S. military who, if captured, might likely be subjected to "unrestrained, debasing treatment, in similar disregard of the Geneva Conventions." With the safety of U.S. soldiers in mind, Veterans for Peace demanded that the Bush administration treat the Guantanamo detainees as POWs and grant them all the rights and privileges spelled out in the Geneva Convention.

Despite this prodding, the Bush administration has refused to live up to its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. It has kept the Afghan war prisoners in a state of legal limbo, with no access to legal counsel or granting them the most basic rights laid out in international agreements to which the U.S. is a signatory.

With all this in mind, it is not surprising if the world community reacts with skepticism to Rumsfeld's complaints that Iraqi forces are not respecting the Geneva Conventions.

Picking and Choosing

The Bush administration's new regard for international law also comes after Bush failed to win the backing of the United Nations Security Council for the invasion of Iraq.

Unable to persuade a majority of the council to endorse an immediate war with Iraq, Bush decided to ignore the U.N. Charter's ban on aggressive warfare. Indeed, Bush put U.S. troops in greater jeopardy under international law by ordering them to wage war outside the U.N. Charter, against a country that was not threatening the United States.

That background has left many in the world viewing the administration's outrage over videotapes of American POWs as a case of a country that likes its international law a la carte, effectively picking and choosing when the rules should apply and when they shouldn't.

Now, as the U.S. military campaign in Iraq finds itself confronting unexpected obstacles and dangers, the Bush administration is using the videotaped interviews to fan the flames of American war passions.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has sidestepped any debate about its inconsistency toward the Geneva Conventions. In maintaining this contradictory posture, Bush has been aided and abetted by an American news media that has – with very few exceptions – substituted pro-war cheerleading for anything approximating professional journalism.

Bedding and Embedding

The U.S. news media has offered the American people largely two perspectives on the war: the view of "embedded" journalists who travel with U.S. military units and the "in-bed" journalists who fill up the rest of the hours with interviews with retired U.S. generals during which both the generals and the "reporters" use the first person plural "we" to describe what the U.S. military is doing to the Iraqi military.

For instance, on March 19 during the first hours of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was discussing with a panel of retired U.S. officers what "we" were planning for Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Explaining why the U.S. bombing might avoid destroying Iraq's infrastructure, Brokaw said, "in a few days, we're going to own that country."

The cable news networks – CNN, MSNBC and Fox News – have demonstrated even less professionalism as they root for the U.S. team and duck troublesome questions about the early U.S. setbacks in the war.

In an apparent competition to "brand" themselves the most patriotic news channel, MSNBC and Fox News have even employed a logo of a waving American flag often superimposed over green, night-vision-lit scenes of the U.S. bombardment of Baghdad. In some shots of Iraq, a casual viewer might think the Stars and Stripes were flying over Iraqi territory.

While the consistent pro-war messages of the U.S. news media might guarantee that none of Bush's contradictory positions on the Geneva Conventions will become the subject of extensive debate in the United States, the rest of the world might not be so selective in its outrage.

No matter how much the Bush administration complains, it shouldn't be surprised if the rest of the world shakes its head, rolls its eyes and says, "Well, what did you expect?"

For an earlier story on the Afghan War and the Geneva Conventions, click here.

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