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U.S. Violates Geneva Conventions

by members of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition

On January 11, 2002, the United States announced that it was refusing to abide by the 1949 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. The Third Geneva Convention, which provides specific guidelines for treatment of prisoner combatants, is a part of the "law of nations" and is a mainstay of international humanitarian law. The United States explained that the prisoners taken in Afghanistan and Pakistan were not actually prisoners of war, but were in fact "unlawful combatants."

The first prisoners arrived in the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on January 11, 2002. According to the Washington Post, prisoners were hooded and shackled during the 27-hour flight. The United States defended these practices as appropriate security measures. Media on site in Cuba reported that the prisoners were fitted with goggles that were blacked out, for "security reasons" necessary to prevent them from using their eyes. In a public letter to Donald Rumsfeld , Amnesty International expressed concern that the prisoners' conditions of transport violated international norms.

The prisoners are being housed in outdoor 6 foot-by-8 foot open-air chain link cages, with concrete floors and wooden roofs, and contain a mat and a plastic bucket. The U.S. demanded that media not show photographs of the prisoners in these conditions, explaining, without apparent irony at the inconsistency, that the photos would deprive the prisoners of their rights under the Geneva Convention. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, any photographs of the prisoners in the United States-imposed conditions would be "humiliating" and "debasing." Several outlets have not complied with the Pentagon's demand.

The Bush Administration's refusal to abide by the world's humanitarian laws stands in stark contrast to the justifications advanced for U.S. military actions. On September 20, 2001, in a televised speech, George W. Bush justified the waging of war as necessary to defend the values of "civilization" against "evil": "This is not, however, just America's fight. And what is at stake is not just America's freedom. This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight." On November 8, 2001, in his prime-time speech to the nation, President Bush declared the bombing of Afghanistan to be "a war to save civilization itself."

Article 4 of the Geneva Convention defines the categories of persons who may be considered as "prisoners of war." According to Article 5, "should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy, 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." No competent tribunal has adjudicated this matter.

Among the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention regarding humane treatment of prisoners of war, which the U.S. is refusing to apply, are:

- Article 13: Humane treatment required; No reprisals allowed

- Article 14: Respect for persons and honour; No gender discrimination

- Article 16: No discrimination based on race, nationality, religious belief or political opinions

- Article 17: No physical or mental torture; No coercion to obtain information; Prisoners who decline to provide information may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment

- Article 18: Clothing, articles of personal use, to remain with prisoners

- Article 20: Evacuation or transfer to be under same conditions as afforded Detaining Power

- Article 21: Internment in camp allowed; Close confinement prohibited

- Article 22: Internment in penitentiaries prohibited; Every guarantee of hygiene and healthfulness required

- Article 25: Condition of quarters must be as favorable for POWs as for the forces of the Detaining Power; Accommodations for habits and customs of POWs required; Protection from dampness, adequate heat and lighting required

- Article 26: Food must be in sufficient quantity, quality and variety to maintain good health and weight

- Article 27: Adequate clothing, underwear and footwear required

- Article 28: Canteens must be installed; Fairly priced food, soap, tobacco and ordinary items must be stocked

- Articles 29 - 32: Proper hygiene and medical attention, including monthly health inspections, required

- Articles 34 - 37: Prisoners must be afforded complete latitude in the exercise of religion, including attendance at services, on condition they comply with disciplinary routine

- Article 38: Provisions for physical, intellectual and recreational activities

- Article 70: Prisoners must be allowed to write to family, others

The authors are members of the national steering committee of the A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition.

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This story was published on February 6, 2002.
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