February 9, 2002

Bush and The Geneva Convention: Begging the Question

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In a striking example of double-talk, President George W. Bush has announced that the United States will apply the Geneva Convention to the captured Taliban fighters in Guantanamo, but won’t classify them as prisoners of war. This is like being half pregnant. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War spells out how prisoners of war must be treated. Bush’s statement that he will apply the Geneva Convention to the Taliban prisoners is tantamount to a declaration that they are POWs.

Bush says his decision will result in “no change” in the treatment of the captives, because they’re already generally being treated consistent with the Geneva Convention. Bush’s non-decision is admittedly calculated to remind other rogue nations who might capture U.S. fighters that our soldiers must be granted the protections of the Geneva rules.

The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War requires that the status of captured persons be determined by a “competent tribunal” should “any doubt arise” about whether they are prisoners of war. Meanwhile, they must be afforded the protections of the Geneva Convention.

Despite widespread doubt around the world, the Pentagon says there is no doubt at all about the status of the Guantanamo captives But White House spokesman Ari Fleisher’s statement that the drafters of the Geneva Convention didn’t contemplate international terrorists belies the Pentagon’s insistence that there is no doubt about their status. The United States can’t have it both ways.

The Pentagon has taken it upon itself to classify the captives as “unlawful combatants” in order to deny them the rights spelled out in the Geneva Convention. These rights include humane treatment and the right not to be interrogated or coerced into providing information. The U.S. government is admittedly interrogating the captives. And from its steadfast refusal to consider them POWs, it is surely using coercion to get them to talk. Moreover, keeping human beings in small outdoor cages does not qualify as humane treatment.

Even if a competent tribunal were to decide that some of the captives are not POWs, then our government is still duty bound to follow two other treaties we’ve ratified – the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Torture Convention forbids the use of physical or mental coercion for the purpose of getting information, and the ICCPR prohibits compulsion to get someone to confess guilt. Keeping human beings in cages constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, which is proscribed by both of these treaties.

George W. Bush and his administration have demonstrated a consistent unwillingness to follow our international treaty obligations. By refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and disavowing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, our government has sent a strong message to other countries that we have no respect for our legal obligations. The treaties we have ratified are not simply abstract international principles. Under the Constitution, they are part of our domestic law and bind our government to respect them.

In an unprecedented move, the United States was voted off the United Nations Commission on Human Rights last year. It should come as no surprise that other countries are unimpressed with our human rights hypocrisy – demanding that foreign nations uphold human rights while flaunting our own human rights responsibilities. President Bush ended his recent State of the Union address with these words: “We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.” The captives at Guantanamo are human beings, who may or may not have committed crimes. The United States government must adhere to its treaty obligations; it must also take the high road and treat all human beings with dignity and respect.