Bush's Return to Unilateralism
February 18, 2002
The day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, George W. Bush assured Americans that we will rally the world in building a coalition to punish those responsible.
The world did
rally. Virtually every government expressed outrage at the murder of an
estimated 3,000 civilians. Around the world, U.S. allies and adversaries
condemned the terrorism unequivocally. Most of that international support
held through the U.S.-led attack against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda
operatives and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.
But many U.S. allies
now believe that the Bush administration is veering back to its pre-Sept. 11
strategy of go-it-alone unilateralism, reasserting a studied contempt for
international agreements and ignoring world opinion.
rallied to the U.S. cause after Sept. 11, are leading the protests against
Bush's selective application of the Geneva Conventions toward prisoners at Camp
X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Allies were troubled, too, by Bushs
belligerent State of the Union address designating Iran, Iraq and North Korea as
an axis of evil. And the allies are upset at Bush's continued snubbing of
the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.
Having won on the
battlefields of Afghanistan, the Bush administration now risks losing the
world's support that is vital in the long-term battle against terrorism. The
turning of world opinion against aspects of U.S. policy is especially striking
given the near-universal support after Sept. 11.
Immediately after the
attacks, the United Nations, the European Union and other multilateral
organizations expressed solidarity with the United States. The Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the slaughter in New York and
outside Washington as an attack on the whole of the international
NATO for the first time invoked Article 5, which states that an attack on any member state is an attack on all. The flags of most nations flew at half-mast. Minutes of silence were observed all over the world on Sept. 14.
I went to the vigil
outside the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark, and saw a scene repeated on
sidewalks in front of U.S. embassies everywhere a sea of flowers, candles,
notes and even New York Yankees baseball caps. There was a belief that Sept. 11
changed everything and imbued a hope for multilateral cooperation to build
a better and safer world.
Even countries not
natural U.S. allies, such as Uzbekistan in the former Soviet
help. They hatched secret bilateral agreements trading assistance in the U.S.
attack on Afghanistan for U.S. help in fighting their own terrorist threats.
One of the first
signs, however, that Bush might overplay his hand was his excessive rhetoric as
he vowed to mount a "crusade" that would "rid the world of
While the war in
Afghanistan drew widespread international support, some U.S. actions caused
concern. Possibly thousands of Afghan civilians died as the U.S. dropped
"cluster bombs" and "Daisy Cutters" and used other highly
lethal ordnance. The U.S. government also seemed willing to tolerate human
rights abuses by new U.S. allies who saw the war on terrorism as a carte blanche
to rid themselves of troublesome dissidents.
But the turning point
of Bush's regression to unilateralism appears to have been his decision to
effectively waive the Geneva Conventions as they pertained to Taliban and al
Qaeda prisoners who surrendered in Afghanistan and were flown to the U.S.
military base at Guantanamo Bay.
outcry over Camp X-Ray began when the living conditions of the prisoners were
revealed, and particularly after photographs were released showing the detainees
in open-air cages being subjected to what looked like sensory deprivation
European leaders notably the German and Dutch governments, British parliamentarians and the European Union and human rights groups objected to the treatment. Some of the loudest criticism 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.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, also objected to the treatment of the detainees and called on the Bush administration to follow the Geneva Conventions. In a Jan. 19 column in the British Independent, Robinson argued that because the Afghanistan conflict was of an international nature, the law of international armed conflict applies. She took issue with the administration's assertion that the prisoners were unlawful combatants and thus outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
The foreign press also criticized the Bush administration's actions. On Jan. 22, the mainstream Danish daily, Politikken, carried a two-page spread with photos of the prisoners and their conditions, diagrams of their cells and analysis of their legal status. As part of the package, the paper ran an article about the CIA-backed contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, a war condemned by the World Court as illegal yet still pursued by the Reagan-Bush administration.
article called the contras terrorists and implied that Washington acted
hypocritically, picking and choosing which international laws to follow and
which to ignore.
In an article about
Camp X-Ray, The Mirror of London admonished Prime Minister Tony Blair to stop
this brutality in our name, saying these prisoners are trapped in open
cages, manacled hand and foot, brutalized, tortured and humiliated.
Human rights groups
weighed in. Amnesty International expressed concern about the tactics being used
and the secrecy surrounding the camp. 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, the human
rights group said.
British human rights
attorney Stephen Solley said the treatment of the suspects was so far removed
from human rights norms that it [was] difficult to comprehend.
Human Rights Watch said, If there is doubt about anyones status as a prisoner of war, the Geneva Conventions require that he be treated as such until a competent tribunal determines otherwise. To our knowledge, no tribunals have made any such determinations.
The issue of POW
status was central to the debate. If detainees are deemed POWs, they are
accorded certain rights by the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of
Prisoners of War, of which the U.S. is a signatory party. Among these rights is
to be housed in quarters comparable to those of the Detaining Powers
soldiers, which the U.S. is clearly not doing. As Article 25 states:
Prisoners of war shall be quartered under conditions as favorable as those
for the forces of the Detaining Power who are billeted in the same area.
Also, prisoners of war may not be held in close confinement except where necessary to safeguard their health and then only during the continuation of the circumstances which make such confinement necessary, according to Article 21. Since the U.S. is keeping the prisoners in 6x8-foot cells, with heights of only 8 feet, this too would seem to violate the Convention. It is hard to imagine conditions more confining than Camp X-Ray's cages.
In addition, the premises provided for the use of prisoners of war individually or collectively, shall be entirely protected from dampness and adequately heated and lighted, in particular between dusk and lights out, according to Article 25. Outdoor cells fully open to the elements would not protect against dampness. The temperature in Cuba is in the 80s, so perhaps the heating is not relevant, but a strong case could be made that the U.S. is violating the spirit of this provision for the internment of prisoners.
There are other protections of prisoners of war enumerated in the Geneva Conventions that are considered important by human rights groups and the international community. Some are the right of persons suspected of a crime to be informed of their rights, the right to have access to counsel of their choice, the right to silence without that silence being used against them, and the right not to be interrogated in the absence of their counsel.
It is difficult to tell how many of these protections are being respected because visits to the site are strictly controlled and limited. The Red Cross has visited the camp, but under agreement with U.S. authorities, Red Cross officials are operating under their standard working procedures which do not allow the Red Cross to comment publicly on the treatment of detainees or on conditions of detention. They may only discuss their findings with the detaining authorities.
international criticism, Bush's spokesmen have alleged that the captives are not
soldiers in the normal sense but dangerous criminals, though evidence of
individual guilt has not been presented.
contends the prisoners are "unlawful combatants" who did not follow
the conventions of war as enumerated in Article 4 of the Conventions, that is,
they have no responsible command and do not carry their arms openly, wear
uniforms with distinct insignia or conduct their operations within the laws and
customs of war.
administration claims the Conventions do not apply and the U.S. does not have to
follow standards for treating the prisoners as POWs. Still, the administration
has said it is treating the detainees "humanely."
defense prompted an international response rebuffing Bush's arguments. The
debate shaped up as follows:
statuses are in doubt, a competent tribunal must be convened to determine
their status. Before that is done, the detainees must be accorded the rights of
a POW. According to Article 5, Should any doubt arise as to whether persons
... belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall
enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status
has been determined by a competent tribunal.
The provision makes
clear that as long as the U.S. does not treat them as POWs or does not bring the
prisoners before a competent tribunal to determine their status, the U.S. is
violating the Convention or simply disregarding it.
As for the Bush administration's argument that the fighters in Afghanistan didn't comport with rules of war regarding uniforms and other behavior, those requirements only apply to militia operating independently of a governments regular armed forces. The argument cannot apply to the Taliban fighters at Camp X-Ray since they were a ruling government's army.
It could be argued
that the al Qaeda fighters can be characterized as members of a militia or a
volunteer corps linked to the Taliban. But whether the exclusions apply, as the
Bush administration contends, would depend on specific factual determinations
that have not been explained.
In its description of
the al Qaeda fighters as "unlawful combatants," the Bush
administration also could be criticized for practicing selective judgments given
the history of al Qaeda. Many of the Arab units that formed al Qaeda
including those under Osama bin Laden were first brought to Afghanistan in
the 1980s as part of the CIA-backed war against Soviet forces. In that context,
U.S. officials regarded bin Laden's Arab units as international "freedom
aside, the question of U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions would hinge
on the findings of a competent tribunal that has not been established. Since
human rights groups and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights have
expressed doubt as to the POW status, the Geneva Conventions seem clear that a
tribunal is needed to determine the status of individual prisoners, to find out
whether they are Taliban or al Qaeda fighters, and to clarify the relationship
between the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
In recent weeks, Bush
seems to have recognized his weak legal position, although he remains
politically buoyed by the American public's disinterest in the legal niceties of
international law. The lingering fury over Sept. 11 has freed Bush's hand to
give only token concessions to the world community.
Still, after several
governments warned that the U.S. was weakening the foundations of international
law, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Bush to reverse his position and
declare the detainees prisoners of war. In response, on Feb. 7, Bush finally
agreed to apply the Geneva Conventions, but adopted such a narrow interpretation
that the shift seems largely rhetorical. Nothing effectively changed.
But the White House comments appeared to be a case of watch what we do, not what we say or at least watch what we say very closely. A couple of sentences later, Fleischer said Bush would decide on his own who was entitled to POW status, despite the Geneva Conventions provision that this decision can only be made by a competent tribunal.
In justifying this
position, the White House maintained that the war on terrorism is a war not
envisaged when the Geneva Convention was signed in 1949. The White House
said, the Convention simply does not cover every situation in which people
may be captured or detained by military forces.
Experts on the Conventions challenged this stance. They said that because the conflict in Afghanistan was international in character, the rules applied fully. Historically, too, the Geneva Conventions have applied to a wide variety of conflicts, including guerrilla wars where irregular forces have fought alongside national armies and committed some acts that have been denounced as terrorism.
In a larger sense,
Bush seemed to be asserting a personal right to decide when well-established
treaties and international agreements should be applied and when ignored.
As for the detainees
at Guantanamo, the White House said many POW privileges will be provided.
Some of the privileges include water, medical care, shelter, showers and
soap. Denied, however, will be access to a canteen to purchase food, a monthly
advance of pay, or the ability to receive scientific equipment, musical
instruments or sports outfits. The administration also made clear that the
living conditions of the detainees would not be altered to be in line with the
rights of POWs.
But that argument may
be beside the point. Nothing in the Geneva Conventions prohibits interrogation,
even of prisoners of war. Article 17 simply states that every prisoner of
war, when questioned on the subject, is bound to give only his surname, first
names and rank, date of birth, and army, regimental, personal or serial number,
or failing this, equivalent information. If prisoners refuse to give that
information, they may have privileges taken away.
Under no circumstances, however, are prisoners to undergo physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion in order to extract information. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind, the rule states. The U.S. itself cited this provision most notably in accusing North Vietnam of abusing U.S. pilots shot down while bombing targets during the Vietnam War.
Experts on the Geneva
Conventions point out that even if the U.S. were to classify the detainees as
prisoners of war, interrogations could proceed. All that would be prohibited
would be coercive techniques to extract answers.
A concern of some human rights advocates is that the Bush administration is using the unusual and confining conditions at Camp X-Ray as a device to break the prisoners down in a strategy that would clearly violate the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.
Whatever the reason
for Bush's refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions fully to the detainees, it is
angering allies and organizations that oversee humane treatment of POWs. The
controversy also is putting in jeopardy the cooperation that had marked Europe's
largest-ever police investigations against terrorism. European critics fear,
too, that norms of international law may be rendered obsolete in the future, or
at least more difficult to enforce.
On Feb. 8, the Red Cross called both the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters prisoners of war fully protected by the Geneva Conventions. They were captured in combat (and) we consider them prisoners of war, ICRC spokesperson Darcy Christen told Reuters. The Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights also reiterated their position that any dispute over the status of a prisoner must be settled by a tribunal and not by one side of the conflict.
international law à la carte, like multilateralism à la carte," one West
European ambassador told the International Herald Tribune. "It annoys your
allies in the war against terrorism, and it creates problems for our Muslim
allies, too. It puts at stake the moral credibility of the war against
This view holds that
Washington is asserting an American exceptionalism in which the U.S. will apply
international law when it wants, such as after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990,
while ignoring the rules when they are inconvenient to U.S. interests. That
selectivity comes with a price, however. It erodes the world's respect for legal
principles while spreading a worldwide cynicism that might makes right.
Without the moral
credibility that comes with equal application of law, the ability to pressure
others to respect international law and human rights is weakened. It also
becomes more difficult to frame the war against terrorism as a battle between
civilized values and barbarism.
One example of how this could affect the Wests ability to pressure human rights abusers could be the Russians conduct in their war against Chechen terrorists in the North Caucasus, a conflict that previously was a favorite target of U.S. criticism. If Russia were to round up hundreds or thousands of Chechens and treat the Chechens with no regard for international conventions, the West now would not be in much of a position to criticize the conduct. It would be difficult to apply pressure without coming across as hypocritical.
Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who has been condemned widely by the West for his human rights record, has picked up on this theme, as he criticized the U.S. for not adhering to its own strictures. They used human rights and the rights of prisoners for propaganda purposes against other countries, he said. But when their turn came to uphold those rights, they openly violated them.
Besides undermining the universal application of international law, this episode reinforces the impression that the Bush administration disdains international agreements and will not accept rules that limit its freedom of action.
Allies are concerned
that Bush is slipping back into his pre-Sept. 11 unilateralism. Bush earned that
early reputation by backing out of international accords, such as Kyoto Accord
and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, while refusing to cooperate in
establishing an International Criminal Court as proposed by the UN.
By brushing aside the
Geneva Conventions, Bush has shown again his intent to go it alone when he
chooses, even while seeking international cooperation in a global struggle to
contain the terrorist threat. His emphasis on a military solution also goes
against the views of many world leaders who say the roots of terrorism must be
Roots of Terrorism
One of those roots is
the disparity of wealth in the world, with billions living in abject poverty and
a relatively few rich countries enjoying prosperity. This situation fosters an
atmosphere of resentment, which can easily spill over into hatred and violence.
Democratic deficit is another issue. As Romanian parliamentarian Adrian Severin pointed out in a speech on Jan. 23, If poor people have to choose between political authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism, they will be inclined to choose the latter rather than the former.
This phenomenon can
be seen playing out in some of the stan countries of Central Asia, where
government repression of legitimate political activity has spawned militant
fundamentalist groups that see violence as the only way to effect change.
The cultural clash
between a globalization-led takeover of local communities on the one hand and a
consciousness of tribal identities on the other is another factor that feeds
extremism and violence. Terrorism also is closely linked to organized crime,
another problem that requires cooperation and intelligence sharing among
Former Vice President Al Gore, who has backed Bush on the war against terrorism, noted this more complex reality in a speech on Feb. 12 before the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is another axis of evil in the world: poverty and ignorance; disease and environmental disorder; corruption and political oppression," Gore said.
"We may well put
down terror in its present manifestations. But if we do not attend to the larger
fundamentals as well, then the ground is fertile and has been seeded for the
next generation of those born to hate us, who will hold these things up before
the world's poor and dispossessed, and say that all these things are in our
image, and rekindle the war we are now hoping to snuff out," Gore said.
The former vice president, who outpolled Bush for the presidency in 2000 but still lost the White House, noted the difference between the Clinton-Gore attitude toward the world and the Bush view.
administration in which I served looked at the challenges we faced in the world
and said we wished to tackle these 'With others, if possible; alone, if we
must.' This administration seems inclined to stand that on its head, so that the
message is: 'With others, if we must; by ourselves, if possible,'" Gore
Bush administration may believe that Europe and other allies have little choice
but to get in line once the U.S. launches Phase Two of the war to rid the world
of evil. But already, many allies are warning that they will balk at an attack
on rogue states, such as Iraq.
This rift might grow larger if the international community concludes that Washington has succumbed to the temptation of vigilante-ism, with George W. Bush asserting that he and he alone will apply Wild West justice to "evil-doers" the world over.
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