The Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal shows just how far the Bush administration has departed from the Geneva Conventions and their requirements that all prisoners, no matter their status, be treated humanely. Those conventions, as a bottom line, prohibit torture, outrages upon personal dignity and cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment.
The Bush administration’s decision to ignore the conventions did not begin with the actions of U.S. soldiers in the prison at Abu Ghraib. It has its genesis shortly after the first combatants were captured in the war against Afghanistan.
In February 2002, President Bush announced that captured Taliban fighters were not to be treated as prisoners of war and that the Geneva Conventions had no application to members of al-Qaida fighting alongside the Taliban. The International Red Cross publicly protested, which it rarely does, saying the conventions required individualized hearings before a country could deprive any combatant of POW status. Despite U.S. Army regulations mandating such hearings, the administration refused. It insisted it could hold the people it labeled “enemy combatants” indefinitely and incommunicado, without giving them any hearing whatsoever. Some of these captured combatants recently argued their case before the Supreme Court.
One of the legal briefs in support of the detainees was filed by former American prisoners of war and an organization that represents 50,000 such former prisoners, many from World War II. The former POWs were concerned that America’s failure to honor the conventions would have repercussions on U.S. soldiers captured abroad. The brief pointed out that ignoring the conventions would “undermine the authority to demand that other nations comply with international humanitarian law” and impair the U.S. ability to “demand fair and humane treatment of Americans detained by foreign governments.”
In other words, American POWs realized that it is in America’s self-interest to treat captured combatants in accordance with law. These veterans understand full well that we are risking abuse of Americans if we do otherwise.
Even before the recent revelations of abuse in Iraq, the lawless treatment of those held at Guantanamo had already become iconic in the Muslim world. The images of crew-cut Marines standing guard over kneeling, goggled and anonymous Muslim prisoners became the image of everything America was doing wrong in the war on terror. At Guantanamo, sleep and food deprivation, stress positions, stripping, short shackling and lack of exercise were all part of normal interrogation techniques — in utter disregard of the Geneva Conventions.
They were part of a much broader pattern in which, under regulations promulgated by the Pentagon, service members were routinely allowed to keep prisoners hooded and naked, to force prisoners to maintain stressful poses for hours on end, and to deprive them of sleep for lengthy periods. Indeed, such actions were even encouraged by Pentagon policymakers, if they would help to “condition” suspects to cooperate in interrogations.
We still do not know whether the worst practices at Abu Gharib were also employed at Guantanamo but we do know that the conditions on Guantanamo were against the law, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions and against what America ought to stand for.
Now even worse pictures of sexual abuse and snarling dogs attacking naked men have replaced the iconic photos of Guantanamo.
At the outset of the war, the administration argued that one of its goals in Iraq was to end human-rights violations. That rhetoric now rings hauntingly hollow.
Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel in Rasul v. Bush, one of the cases now pending in the Supreme Court in regard to the Guantanamo detainees.