While the focus of the current congressional debate
has been on Bush’s demands to redefine torture and to reinterpret the
Geneva Conventions, the compromise legislation also would block
prosecutions for violations already committed during the five-year-old
“war on terror.”
The compromise legislation bars criminal or civil
legal action over past violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva
Conventions, according to press reports. Common Article 3 outlaws
“violence to life and person,” such as death and mutilation as well as
cruel treatment and “outrages upon personal dignity.”
The legislation now before Congress also would
prohibit detainees from citing the Geneva Conventions as a legal basis
for challenging their imprisonment or for seeking civil damages for
their mistreatment. [Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2006]
Since U.S. courts generally limit plaintiff status
to people who have suffered definable harm, these provisions amount to a
broad amnesty law for Bush and other administration officials who have
engaged in human rights violations since the 9/11 attacks.
Given the scope of Common Article 3, covering
abuses ranging from personal humiliations to death, the legislation
could prevent – or at least severely complicate – any legal
accountability in U.S. courts for officials who have committed these
Though administration officials have said these
provisions are meant to protect CIA and other government operatives in
the field, the provisions also could shield senior officials up the line
of command who granted the authority for acts of torture and other
These implicated officials could include Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales and administration legal advisers who supplied
rationales for the abuses, as well as officials who signed off on the
human rights violations, such as military commanders and President Bush.
'Dirty War' Precedents
In effect, this legislation could be interpreted as
a broad amnesty law, like those enacted by legislatures in Argentina and
Chile to give cover to government officials who waged “dirty wars”
against leftists and other political opponents in the 1970s.
Because of those amnesty laws, many perpetrators of
torture, “disappearances” and extrajudicial killings were spared
punishment even after the grisly details of their crimes against
humanity emerged from the secret records.
In some cases, the amnesty laws were later repealed
or courts struck down some provisions. But the legal delays frustrated
demands for justice from victims and often the aging perpetrators then
cited infirmities to prevent ever being brought to trial.
For instance, Chile is still trying to untangle the
amnesty protections that were used to shield dictator Augusto Pinochet
from prosecution. Pinochet, who is now 90, has also employed the
The legal delays have had political consequences,
too, especially in the United States where complicit American officials
escaped virtually all accountability, even to their reputations. [See
Shields Dad on Chile Terrorism.”]
Some countries, such as South Africa, have combined
amnesty for human rights violators with requirements that the guilty
cooperate with truth commissions. That way, at least the historical
record can be assembled and the crimes of state can be exposed as
lessons for future generations.
The emerging U.S. amnesty law would be unusual in
that it wouldn’t explicitly acknowledge that offenses had been
committed, nor is the word “amnesty” used. Nor have there been public
hearings in Congress to determine what the Bush administration might
have done that requires amnesty.
Nevertheless, the legislation, which seems to be
gaining bipartisan support, would create broad areas of legal
protections for Bush and other human rights violators for past crimes.
By also barring victims from seeking enforcement of the Geneva
Conventions in U.S. courts, the bill would give the Bush administration
wide latitude for future acts of abuse.
Yet, this troubling “amnesty” signpost – for an
America rushing down a path marked by previous “dirty war” states – has
been passed with barely a comment on its significance.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'