A Bush administration policy that categorically denies prisoner-of-war status to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees violates international law, an Organization of American States panel found.
In a 5-0 vote, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the U.S. to hold hearings on whether each detainee held at a naval base in Cuba is a POW, as defined by the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. says the 300 men held at Guantanamo Bay are “unlawful combatants” by virtue of fighting for al Qaeda or the Taliban, and therefore no proceedings are needed to see if they deserve the additional protections accorded POWs.
The U.S. previously has ignored decisions of the OAS panel, which several times has asked the U.S. to stay executions of convicted murderers. But the vote’s timing is an embarrassment to the Bush administration, coming as Attorney General John Ashcroft concludes a meeting with OAS justice ministers in Trinidad to ask their assistance in the war on terrorism.
“The U.S. is a very powerful country, so this is a very courageous decision,” said Michael Ratner, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York advocacy group that brought the case to the OAS panel last month.
A State Department spokesman said the U.S. “will respond in due course” to the commission, but declined further comment.
Last month, a federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed a suit brought by liberal activists on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees, saying the offshore base lies outside the protection of U.S. courts. A similar case, brought by Mr. Ratner’s group, is pending in a Washington, D.C., federal court.
The Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of nations during wartime, require that a “competent tribunal” be convened “should any doubt arise” regarding a prisoner’s status. The Bush administration says it has no doubt about the men who fought for al Qaeda, the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban, the brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime that formerly ruled Afghanistan. No such fighters are POWs, the U.S. says, since neither force followed the rules of war, which bar targeting civilians and require, among other things, that soldiers wear insignia.
Several groups have disputed the U.S. position, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Geneva humanitarian organization that monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions. The OAS panel, based in Washington, said it is “well-known that doubt exists as to the legal status of the detainees” and that “a competent court or tribunal, as opposed to a political authority, must be charged with ensuring respect” for their “legal status and rights.” The panel’s U.S. member didn’t take part in the decision.
POWs are entitled to the same legal rights U.S. soldiers receive in courts-martial. The Bush administration has said it may prosecute some of the detainees before military tribunals that afford fewer rights than that.
“This is the first decision by an international tribunal that explicitly addresses the status of the Guantanamo detainees,” said Jonathan Miller, a professor at Southwestern University law school in Los Angeles who has argued cases before the OAS panel. “There’s not much doubt that under international law, the Bush administration’s position is very problematic.”