Why the US Should Follow Rules of War

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Adrienne McPhail, worthing[email protected]

Published — Sunday 6 November 2005

Last Update 6 November 2005 3:00 am

There have been international rules regarding military conduct since the first Geneva Convention documentation was signed in 1864. Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention assures the humane treatment of all persons that are detainees. Countries who have mistreated prisoners of war have traditionally been looked upon as violators of the most basic rules of war and the stain of this unacceptable behavior has tainted their recorded histories. This was the case in reference to Japan’s war record in the 1930s and 1940s.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration adopted a position that suspected terrorists were not uniformed combatants and therefore their rights were not to be protected by the Geneva Convention.

Now, this decision has sparked an open debate inside the White House, the Pentagon and the US Senate, led by Sen. John McCain. No one is better qualified to defy the White House regarding this important issue than Sen. McCain, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and who suffered torture during his confinement.

Several weeks ago, Sen. McCain introduced Senate Amendment 1977 which states: “No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Ninety Senators voted in favor of this amendment, while only nine voted against it.

The White House had campaigned over several months to try and defeat this measure before it ever saw the light of day. Heading up this campaign was Vice President Cheney who told key Republicans last July that the president would veto the entire $440 billion military spending measure to which this amendment is attached.

At the same time this was happening, the Defense Department had been revising four major documents that include the directives on detention operations and interrogations for the army interrogations manual. Matthew C. Waxman, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s chief adviser on detainee issues, wanted to include language from Article 3 of the Geneva Convention in the manual, which would finally protect detainees from the abuses that have occurred at Guantanamo Bay and in detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Waxman, like Sen. McCain, recognizes that part of the problem is a lack of concise direction in the Army Field Manual regarding the basic question, “Just what standards apply to the treatment of enemy detainees?” In fact, Sen. McCain referred to a letter he had received from Army Capt. Ian Fishback, who has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and who complained that for over 17 months he struggled to get the answer to this question from his chain of command.

Still, in spite of all the logical and moral reasons for the Bush administration to change its policy on detainee treatment, they are refusing to listen to either the Pentagon or the Senate. A central player in this fight is David S. Addington. He was Vice President Cheney’s counsel until this past week when he was chosen to succeed Lewis Libby as Cheney’s chief of staff. Addington helped create the legal framework after Sept. 11 that included the intentionally vague instructions regarding treatment of detainees, which has resulted in the abuses that have occurred. The reasoning that Addington and Cheney have referenced is that these measures would tie the government’s hands in combating terrorists and still would not satisfy America’s critics. A weak argument at best.

Sen. McCain’s amendment shines like a beacon of light in the mist of what has become an American disgrace. He gave three simple reasons why the rules of war must be followed.

First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence because under torture, a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop. Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers US troops who might be captured by the enemy — if not in this war, then in the next. And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas, because inevitably these abuses become public.

When they do, the cruel actions of a few darken the reputation of our country in the eyes of millions. He then introduced a letter that was signed by twenty-nine high-ranking retired military officers expressing their support for his amendment. He also displayed a letter of support from former Secretary of State Powell.

There can be no excuse for the White House to continue this failed and useless policy just as there is no excuse for the United States to create a history that would shame all men of conscience.

— Adrienne McPhail is an American journalist located in Japan.

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