"Fate of 'detainees' hangs on US wording"
Lutfi M. Hussein
lutfi.hussein at ASU.EDU
Thu Jan 17 04:15:52 UTC 2002
An interesting example of language use.
Best regards, Lutfi.
lutfi.hussein at asu.edu has recommended this article from
The Christian Science Monitor's electronic edition.
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Headline: Fate of 'detainees' hangs on US wording
Byline: Peter Ford Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
(PARIS)The future of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters being held in Cuba is
as unclear as the view through the darkened goggles they were made to
wear when they stepped off the plane at the US military base in
Already, Washington's refusal to grant them official prisoner-of- war
status has sparked protests from human rights groups, and a
disagreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),
which oversees the Geneva Conventions. But for the US, the POW
designation has little to do with steel manacles or open-air cells.
Rather, it appears to be sidestepping the conventions in order to craft
an unusual legal strategy that will enable it to try Al Qaeda suspects
in special US military tribunals.
Fifty men are currently being held in Guantanamo, in six-by-eight foot
concrete-floored cells, with wooden roofs and chainlink fence "walls"
that leave them open to the elements. US military engineers are
preparing to build up to 2,000 such cells, if necessary; more than 400
prisoners are still being held in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told re- porters that "we do plan to,
for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent
with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent that they are appropriate."
But he was careful to refer to the prisoners as "unlawful combatants"
or "battlefield detainees," not prisoners of war. That description
severely reduces the rights that the men would have as POWs under the
Geneva Conventions, and prompted a rebuttal from the International Red
"We say they should be presumed to be POWs, and it is not up to the
ICRC or to the US military authorities to decide, but up to the
courts," said Michael Kleiner, an ICRC spokesman.
He recalled that a US court determined that former Panamanian strongman
Manuel Noriega was a POW, despite the government's refusal to classify
him as such following his capture. The issue goes to the heart of the
US administration's hopes of prosecuting Al Qaeda leaders suspected of
involvement in terrorist attacks against US targets. Under the third
Geneva Convention, prisoners of war may only be tried in the same
courts and according to the same rules, as soldiers of the country that
is holding the prisoners. That means the Al Qaeda suspects could not be
tried in the special military tribunals whose rules are currently being
worked out, but only by regular US military courts using the Uniform
Code of Military Justice. That would give the prisoners the right to a
three-tier appeal system reaching possibly to the Supreme Court.
"This is one reason why the Americans are nervous about applying the
POW convention in all its glory," says Adam Roberts, an expert on
international law at Oxford University in England, and editor of
"Documents on the Laws of War."
US Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday that the administration
would seek criminal charges in a civil court against the American
Taliban prisoner John Walker Lindh, rather than send him to a military
tribunal. Mr. Ashcroft said he would not face the death penalty.
~~B~~(Related story, page 2.)~~/B~~
US officials say that the foreign prisoners captured in Afghanistan are
not covered by the third Geneva Convention because they were "bands of
people that I don't think would meet the criteria of organized military
activity," as Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hanson put it.
The Pentagon has also stressed that the prisoners are being well
treated, given three "culturally appropriate meals" a day, and the
opportunity to shower, exercise, and receive medical attention.
Human rights organizations, however, have raised questions about the
prisoners' housing conditions, which according to the Geneva Convention
should be the same standard of those enjoyed by their guards.
"If US POWs were ever kept under these conditions, the United States
would complain, and rightly so," says James Ross, a senior legal
adviser with the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The ICRC is to send
a team to Guantanamo by the end of this week, US officials have said,
to inspect Camp X-Ray.
Meanwhile Pentagon legal experts are currently working on a procedure
to decide on the prisoners' fate. US policy towards them "is a new
construct of the new military situation we find ourselves in," dealing
with irregular forces from a variety of countries who are suspected of
terrorism rather than traditional war crimes, Ms. Hanson says.
Little is clear, however. "There are a bunch of lawyers who are looking
at all these treaties and conventions and everything, trying to figure
out what is appropriate," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters last week.
"They are a bit of a tangle, these people," says Prof. Roberts. Under
the Geneva Conventions, POWs must be returned home at the end of the
war. But Saudi or Egyptian detainees, for example, could face
mistreatment at the hands of their governments, which means Washington
would be forbidden by international law to hand them over.
It is also unclear what would constitute an end to the war on
terrorism. And if some individuals were found to be a continued danger,
the US authorities would be reluctant to release them.
"I don't think anything quite like this was envisioned when the Geneva
Conventions were drawn up," says Tom Farer, dean of Denver University's
Graduate School of International Studies and a former special assistant
to the Defense Department's special counsel.
"What is worrying," adds Prof. Roberts, "is that by calling these
people 'battlefield detainees', the United States seems to be creating
a legal limbo where it is not clear what the legal standards are."
(c) Copyright 2002 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.
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Lutfi M. Hussein
Department of English
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302, USA
Emailto:lutfi.hussein at asu.edu
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