MARGARET WARNER: Less than a week into the conflict, the status and treatment of prisoners of war is already an issue. U.S. officials said yesterday they have about 2,000 Iraqi soldiers in custody. Iraqi officials haven't given a number on U.S. and British prisoners taken, but did show captured Americans on Iraqi state television yesterday and again today. In Geneva today the International Committee of the Red Cross called on both sides to respect the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
For more on this issue we turn to Amanda Williamson, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Washington; and Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and a former lawyer in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Welcome to you both.
Amanda Williamson, this morning spokesmen for the ICRC in Geneva said you all are trying to arrange to visit POW's on both sides. Where do those efforts stand?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: Well, it's obviously an urgent priority for us now that we get access on both sides. We've had preliminary contacts in Kuwait to urgently get access to the Iraqi POW's held by the coalition forces, and today we were able to make contacts in Baghdad with the authorities there with the same request that we get access as soon as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: U.S. Officials – Tommy Franks – today the commander and the DOD spokeswoman Torrie Clark, both said they want to do this as quickly as possible. What's the hang up?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: It's not unusual in fact that. We don't read too much into the fact that we haven't had immediate access. There are often logistical and practical considerations to take into account. We can understand that every minute is precious, especially for the prisoners and particularly for the families on the outside. We have made, of course... they've requested it be as soon as possible, and we hope that it's rather days than weeks.
MARGARET WARNER: Eugene Fidell, give us a sense of what the Geneva Conventions require. I should say that both sides have pledged to uphold the Geneva Conventions in the way they treat prisoners.
EUGENE FIDELL: In essence, the conventions which are on outgrowth of most immediately of World War II, they were negotiated in 1949, require that prisoners be treated fairly, that they be protected. They obviously are out of combat by the time they're prisoners of war, but they still have to be treated with respect, they have to have their food, clothing, medical needs attended to, even their social needs. It's quite a complex network of arrangements that are memorialized in the third Geneva Convention.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that? For instance, are visits from the Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations part of that?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: It does specifically say that the parties to the conflict should not put up any obstacle to allowing the ICRC to visit. Of course, for us, it's absolutely essential that an independent humanitarian organization is able to get to visit the POW’s to ensure that these conventions are adhered to.
MARGARET WARNER: Eugene Fidell, what does it say about interrogating prisoners?
EUGENE FIDELL: The prisoners can be interrogated, but the prisoner only has to respond to four questions: It's the familiar name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. Beyond that, you cannot bring undue pressure on a prisoner of war by means of withholding food or other requirements of living.
MARGARET WARNER: There has been a big furor about Iraqi television having shown the five captured Americans yesterday being interrogated, or at least being asked questions such as the ones you just outlined on Iraqi State TV. They apparently showed two more today, though not being interviewed. What is the ICRC's view of that?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: Well, Article 13 of the Geneva Convention specifically says that prisoners should not be exposed to public curiosity. When the conventions were first written, it did not envisage the sort of wide power and appeal that the media would have. We have a concern, a general concern when prisoners are shown in the mass media, and while it's a bit difficult to draw any conclusive arguments without having the element of intent, we certainly have a concern about both sides. It should be reminded that we've also seen widespread images of Iraqi POW’s at the same time.
MARGARET WARNER: Eugene Fidell, the... we just put up that article from the Geneva Convention. It doesn't really mention television, but I guess that wasn't anticipated in 1949.
EUGENE FIDELL: No, I think television actually existed, but not in anything like the form that viewers would be familiar with, nor, for that matter, was the Internet in existence. So there's a disconnect between the legal arrangements, the black letter of the legal arrangements, and what we have to deal with practically day-to- day right now.
MARGARET WARNER: So how has it been interpreted, this stricture against holding them up to "public curiosity" in terms of television images?
EUGENE FIDELL: Well, there are...
MARGARET WARNER: Or media images in general.
EUGENE FIDELL: Right. Well, first, let me give you a little background. This sort of classic case from World War II was an incident in Rome in which some U.S. And British prisoners were paraded through Rome, filmed, and I believe pictures appeared in the newspapers also on... in occupied Europe. The German officer, a man named Meltzer, who was responsible for this, was later prosecuted for this among other war crimes.
So there is some serious background to this. There was also an incident in Leningrad where thousands of German POW’s were paraded through the city. In the current situation, "current," last year or two, there certainly have been issues presented, for example, with respect to photographs that were taken in a U.S. Air Force plane that was transporting detainees from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay. And there was a major kerfuffle about that, and some effort was made to find out who the culprit was who did that. There've also been issues about what pictures could properly be taken at Guantanamo Bay -- can you get close enough to identify people, that kind of issue.
MARGARET WARNER: So, of course, the U.S.-- and we won’t go down this road -- doesn't recognize them as prisoners of war because it's a war on terror. But in any event, Amanda Williamson, once the ICRC gets access to prisoners, to POW’s, what does that do for them? What do you do for them?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: First of all, it's important that we register them. We just have a trace of who they are and where they are. That's extremely important. Then we have... or we demand what we call private interviews. Every prisoner has the chance to speak privately with an ICRC delegate. Any concerns that he or she may have about their conditions and treatment we treat confidentially and raise those with the detaining authorities. And also, vitally important, I always find, because I've seen this myself, is the value that the Red Cross message has. This is often the only life line that the prisoners have with their families on the outside world, and they write a Red Cross message, and we deliver that to families. It's a really vital humanitarian part of the work that we do in prison.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you come out, though, and report to the world on the treatment of the prisoners?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: No, we don't. The observations, anything that we see or observe in a place of detention is treated absolutely confidentially. We share this with the detaining authorities to try to address any problems that the prisoner or we have raised. It's really vitally important for us that we gain access and continue to gain access. That's why we maintain the process.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as I understand it, in the '91 Gulf War, though, you had access to Iraqi POW’s, you didn't to British and American and other coalition prisoners?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: We gained access, but unfortunately just as they were about to be released, and very far into their detention, despite numerous interventions on our side. We hope that won't be the case this time, obviously.
MARGARET WARNER: There are, as you know, horrific stories of the way American and British POW’s were treated in the '91 Gulf War-- torture, physical and mental abuse, lack of medical care, and so on. Was anyone ever prosecuted for that?
EUGENE FIDELL: I think there were some thoughts given to that, but I don't recall any international tribunal, for example, that was convened. So I think in that case, the kind of administration of justice that we associated with the Nuremberg Tribunals, for example, didn't occur.
MARGARET WARNER: Eugene Fidell, Amanda Williamson, thank you both.