U.S. forces encounter stiffer-than-expected resistance in Iraq, the Bush
administration and the U.S. news media are gaining a sudden reverence for
In the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, five American
soldiers were captured and their images were broadcast Sunday on Iraqi TV.
Bush administration officials immediately denounced the brief televised
interviews with the prisoners as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
That charge was repeated over and over by U.S.
television networks, which spared the American people the unpleasant sight
of the halting conversations and other scenes of dead U.S. soldiers.
Not only did the U.S. news media censor the video on
Sunday, U.S. television "reporters" stayed silent about the
obvious inconsistency between their outrage over the footage of the
American soldiers and the U.S. media's decision only a few days earlier to
run repeated clips of Iraqis identified as prisoners of war.
In that case, Iraqi POWs were paraded before U.S.
cameras as "proof" that Iraqi resistance was crumbling. Some of
the scenes showed Iraqi POWs forced at gunpoint to kneel down with their
hands behind their heads as they were patted down by U.S. soldiers.
Yet neither the Bush administration nor a single U.S.
reporter covering the war for the major news networks observed how those
scenes might be a violation of international law.
Then on Sunday, the same U.S. networks apparently
"forgot" about the earlier scenes of Iraqi POWs and took up
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's charge that by showing videotape of
U.S. POWs, the Iraqis had contravened the Geneva Convention Relative to
the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
"It's illegal to do things to POWs that are
humiliating to those prisoners," Rumsfeld said.
Bush Repudiating Rules
The U.S. television networks also did not see fit to
remind viewers how George W. Bush had drawn widespread international
condemnation a year ago for his decision to strip prisoners of war
captured in Afghanistan of their rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Bush ordered hundreds of captives from Afghanistan to
be put in tiny outdoor cages at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Those
prisoners were shaved bald and forced to kneel down with their eyes, ears
and mouths covered to deprive them of their senses. The shackled prisoners
were filmed being carried on stretchers to interrogation sessions. Their
humiliation was broadcast widely for all the world to see.
In early 2002, U.S. allies objected to the
humiliation of the prisoners and to Bush's assertion that the prisoners
were "unlawful combatants" outside the protection of
international law. One of the chief arguments from European and other
nations was that by flouting the Geneva Conventions, Bush was weakening
respect for international law, a development that could prove dangerous to
U.S. and other soldiers in the future.
Some of the loudest criticism of Camp X-Ray 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
Legal experts pointed out that "unlawful
combatant" is not a category recognized by international law. They
also noted that detainees whose status is in any doubt must be accorded
all rights enumerated in the Geneva Convention until a "competent
tribunal" is established to determine each individual prisoner's
The Bush administration never established that
"competent tribunal." Bush instead unilaterally declared which
prisoners were POWs (with protections under the Geneva Convention) and
which ones were to be considered "unlawful combatants" (with
zero protections under the Geneva Convention).
Even those detainees that Bush deemed POWs were only
granted some rights under the Convention, as determined by Bush. They were
denied other rights, again as determined by Bush.
Most of the prisoners from the Afghan war are still
being held in Guantanamo in a state of legal limbo.
There has been no indication from the White House
when, if ever, they will be released or brought before a tribunal. U.S.
courts have determined that they have no jurisdiction over the Afghan
prisoners, since the detainees are being held in Cuba at a base controlled
by the U.S. military.
For its part, the U.S. military has said that the
prisoners will be held until the end of the "war on terror," a
war that Bush has said "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found,
stopped and defeated." In other words, this war may never end and
the prisoners may spend the rest of their lives on a modern-day Devil's
Human rights groups also have argued that the U.S. treatment of some
prisoners may have crossed the line into torture, with the Bush
administration using sensory deprivation techniques.
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, mistreatment that is specifically prohibited under the
Geneva Convention, Amnesty
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein picked up on this theme
more than a year ago, in January 2002, when the controversy was at its
The Iraqi dictator, who has been broadly criticized
for his own human rights record, claimed that the U.S. "used human rights and the rights of
prisoners for propaganda purposes against other countries," when it
served its purpose. "But when their turn came to uphold those rights,
violated them," he said.
Over the past year, there have been other allegations
about Bush administration's abuse of captives from the "war on
terror." The Washington Post reported that terrorist suspects were
being subjected to "stress and duress" tactics, which in some
cases could be considered forms of torture. [Washington
Post, Dec. 26, 2002]
U.S. officials have admitted to the use of sleep
deprivation in their interrogations of prisoners, a practice with
ambiguous status in international law. The U.N. High Commissioner for
Human Rights has said that when used for the purpose of breaking a
prisoner's will, sleep deprivation "may in some cases constitute
Senior U.S. officials have defended these dubious
tactics, with one official maintaining that, "If you don't violate
someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your
job." He elaborated that the U.S. shouldn't be "promoting a view
of zero tolerance on this. That was the whole problem for a long time with
Virtually affirming the new U.S. policy of using
torture in its interrogation techniques, Cofer Black, former head of the
CIA Counterterrorist Center, told a joint hearing of the House and Senate
intelligence committees on Sept. 26, 2002, that there was a new
"operational flexibility" in dealing with suspected terrorists.
He said that "There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11.
After 9/11 the
gloves come off."
In response to the Washington Post article, Human
Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth reminded the U.S. that torture is always prohibited under any
circumstances." He also warned that, U.S. officials who take part
in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be
prosecuted by courts
anywhere in the world.
Threat to U.S. Troops
Some people have criticized Bush's handling
of POWs on humanitarian grounds. Others have cited the need to maintain
the system of international law put in place since World War II in large part
by prior U.S. presidents.
But other critics have noted that once the
U.S. disregards international norms in treatment of prisoners of war, it
will undermine demands that other nations adhere to those rules when U.S.
soldiers are captured in battle.
Peace, for one, expressed "grave concern" for those serving in
the U.S. military who, if captured, might likely be subjected to "unrestrained,
debasing treatment, in similar disregard of
the Geneva Conventions." With the safety
of U.S. soldiers in mind, Veterans for Peace demanded that the Bush
administration treat the Guantanamo detainees as POWs and grant them all
the rights and privileges spelled out in the Geneva Convention.
Despite this prodding, the Bush administration has refused to live up to
its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. It has kept the Afghan war
prisoners in a state of legal limbo, with no access to legal counsel or
granting them the most basic rights laid out in international agreements
to which the U.S. is a signatory.
With all this in mind, it is not surprising if the world community reacts
with skepticism to Rumsfeld's complaints that Iraqi forces are not
respecting the Geneva Conventions.
Picking and Choosing
The Bush administration's new regard for international law also comes
after Bush failed to win the backing of the United Nations Security
Council for the invasion of Iraq.
Unable to persuade a majority of the council to endorse an immediate war
with Iraq, Bush decided to ignore the U.N. Charter's ban on aggressive
warfare. Indeed, Bush put U.S. troops in greater jeopardy under
international law by ordering them to wage war outside the U.N. Charter,
against a country that was not threatening the United States.
That background has left many in the world viewing the administration's
outrage over videotapes of American POWs as a case of a country that likes
its international law a la carte, effectively picking and choosing when
the rules should apply and when they shouldn't.
Now, as the U.S. military campaign in Iraq finds itself confronting
unexpected obstacles and dangers, the Bush administration is using the
videotaped interviews to fan the flames of American war passions.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has sidestepped any debate about its
inconsistency toward the Geneva Conventions. In maintaining this
contradictory posture, Bush has been aided and abetted by an American news
media that has with very few exceptions substituted pro-war
cheerleading for anything approximating professional journalism.
U.S. news media has offered the American people largely two perspectives
on the war: the view of "embedded" journalists who travel with
U.S. military units and the "in-bed" journalists who fill up the
rest of the hours with interviews with retired U.S. generals during which
both the generals and the "reporters" use the first person
plural "we" to describe what the U.S. military is doing to the
For instance, on March 19 during the first hours of
"Operation Iraqi Freedom," NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was discussing
with a panel of retired U.S. officers what "we" were planning
for Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Explaining why the U.S. bombing might avoid
destroying Iraq's infrastructure, Brokaw said, "in a few days, we're
going to own that country."
The cable news
networks CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have demonstrated even less
professionalism as they root for the U.S. team and duck troublesome
questions about the early U.S. setbacks in the war.
In an apparent
competition to "brand" themselves the most patriotic news
channel, MSNBC and Fox News have even employed a logo of a waving
American flag often superimposed over green, night-vision-lit scenes of
the U.S. bombardment of Baghdad. In some shots of Iraq, a casual viewer
might think the Stars and Stripes were flying over Iraqi territory.
While the consistent pro-war messages of the U.S.
news media might guarantee that none of Bush's contradictory positions on
the Geneva Conventions will become the subject of extensive debate in the
United States, the rest of the world might not be so selective in its
No matter how much the Bush administration complains, it shouldn't be
surprised if the rest of the world shakes its head, rolls its eyes and
says, "Well, what did you expect?"
For an earlier Consortiumnews.com story on the Afghan War and the Geneva
Conventions, click here.