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Bending the Rules:International Law and the Treatment of Prisoners

May 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The Iraqi prisoner abuse photos prompted questions in congress and elsewhere about whether the administration had created a climate for abuse by ignoring or sidestepping rules of prisoner treatment set out in international treaties.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Belittling or ignoring the Geneva Conventions invites our enemies to do the same, and increases the danger to our military servicemen and women. It also sends a disturbing message to the world that America does not feel bound by internationally accepted standards of conduct.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1949, after two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, and the use of an atomic bomb, 190 nations, including the United States, agreed on the need for international rules governing both warfare and the treatment of prisoners, known as the Geneva Conventions. Article 13 states: “Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”

But in 2002, President Bush decided al-Qaida suspects captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were not entitled to all the protections of the Geneva Convention. The president argued the prisoners were terrorists not affiliated with any signatory state. The administration viewed Iraq differently, and said there, detainees would be accorded rights under Geneva Convention rules. In recent days, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other officials repeatedly have been questioned about the application of the Geneva Conventions. They focus on U.S. guidelines for interrogation. For example, allowed practices include rapid-fire and repetitive questioning and sleep and sensory deprivation, while guidelines for interrogation ban practices such as malicious touching.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Stress positions, sleep management, dietary manipulation… all of these things go far beyond the standard which says there will be no physical or mental torture nor any other form of coercion, or that the people involved will be exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind. That’s the Geneva Convention. These rules of engagement for interrogation, issued by your department, are inconsistent with those.

DONALD RUMSFELD: General Myers, correct me if I’m wrong, but my recollection is that any instructions that have been issued or anything that’s been authorized by the department was checked by the lawyers in your shop, in the department, in the office of the secretary of defense, and deemed to be consistent with the Geneva Conventions.

GEN. MYERS: Absolutely.

KWAME HOLMAN: But before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a different view.

SEN. JACK REED: Gen. Pace, if you were shown a video of a U.S. Marine or American citizen under control of a foreign power, in a cell block, naked, with a bag over their head, squatting with their arms uplifted for 45 minutes, would you describe that as a good interrogation technique or a violation of the Geneva Convention?

GEN. PETER PACE: I would describe it as a violation, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: En route to Iraq today, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers took questions from reporters.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We’re seeing editorials, columns, speeches by critics that the United States Government is not adhering to the Geneva Convention; that the unwillingness to adhere has created a mood or climate that led to this type of thing.

First of all, anyone who looks at these pictures and has an ounce of sense couldn’t say that. What took place in those pictures is something over the edge.

Second, the U.S. Government announced with respect to Iraq that the Geneva Conventions apply. Articles 3 and 4 apply for the Iraqi prisoners of war and apply for the civilian nonmilitary detainees. That has been the case from the beginning. We believe that the instructions that have gone out were reviewed by military and civilian counsel, and in their judgment, conform to the Geneva Convention. Fair enough so far?

Therefore anyone who is running around saying the Geneva Convention didn’t apply in Iraq is either terribly uninformed or mischievous. In either case, it is harmful to the country. If you think about it, Geneva doesn’t say what you do when you get up in the morning. It has a set of principles, if you will.

Then countries take those, and have to develop a piece of paper that goes to the people who are managing prisoners of war, detainees, lawful combatants, unlawful. They have to look at that. What we know is the lawyers cleared what was issued down through the system. What we can’t know at any given moment of any day is whether each person is executing them consistent with what was approved by the lawyers down through the system. We have periodic inspections, periodic reviews… we have the International Committee of the Red Cross, they come in and take a look at it, inspector generals look at it, congressmen, congressional delegations go down there, press roar through there… there’s constant review of it.

People will say different things when they walk out. Some will say, “Gosh, I think that’s unbelievable how well that’s done.” Some will say, “I think that’s terrific, except that, in my view, it is mental torture to do something that is inconvenient in a certain way for a detainee, like standing up for a long period,” or some other thing that someone else might say is not in any way abusive or harmful. There is no way to get everybody to agree to all that because when Geneva was prepared and agreed upon, it didn’t go to that level of detail.

KWAME HOLMAN: Touring Abu Ghraib Prison today– site of the abuses– Secretary Rumsfeld promised those who engaged in the actions would be brought to justice.