COLUMN: Stop comparing POWs in Cuba and Iraq

Posted 12:10 p.m. April 10

by Melissa Kronfeld
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Since the March 23 broadcast of five American soldiers held by Iraqi forces on al-Jazeera, the international community has turned critical towards the United States concerns over the treatment of these Prisoners of War (POWs). And why? Because the international community claims the treatment of those “unlawful combatants” at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray is less then humane. But that is simply not true.

An outcry over the Geneva Convention accords and the abandonment of America’s moral position can be heard around the world. But beneath the criticism and lofty rhetorical statements lie hard facts that prove it otherwise.

The Geneva Accords comprise of four documents ratified in Switzerland in post-World War II and amount to a group of international treaties that set about establishing rules for the conduct of war. As the centerpiece of humanitarian law, their purpose was to protect all men, women and children from a repeat of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party in Germany.

It is the third Convention that is a matter of concern as it states the rules for dealing with POWs. The document stipulates that prisoners of war must be humanely treated at all times and they are privy to medical care, food, water and shelter. Prisoners are not to be mentally or physically tortured. And during investigations conducted by the detaining forces, the prisoner need not supply the enemy with any information beyond their name, rank, date of birth and serial number.

But there are specific qualifications for being detained as a prisoner of war. A POW is a member of an organized armed force with a clear chain of command, they must be identifiable, for example, in uniform, they must follow the law of war, primarily by not targeting civilians ands they must openly bear arms.

Conversely, an “unlawful combatant” is a member of an informal armed group rather then a member of a regular army. This is why in late January President Bush decided to classify the Guantanamo Bay prisoners as such.

What authority does the President have to classify these prisoners as “unlawful combatants”? The authority of international law.

The self-proclaimed Taliban and al-Qaeda forces do not classify as prisoners of war. To begin with, these men wore no uniforms, were not enlisted in any professional armed organization, and targeted civilians. Additionally, they responded to no distinguishable chain of command.

But beyond these simple reasons lies a deeper complexity. Noted first by the ancient Roman community, there has always remained a distinction between bellum, a war waged against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy and Guerra, a war waged against latrunculi-, defined as pirates, robbers, and outlaws.

It is my opinion that they have given up their national sovereign rights as a citizen of a recognized state structure, in favor of terrorist activities as embodied by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda forces.

Jay C. Farrar of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. told BBC news that “these detainees, as they are labeled, skirted international norms and abandoned their rights as sovereign nations when they chose to participate in the stateless pursuit of terrorism. The sole purpose for their membership in the terrorist network was to kill an injure non-combatants in a deceitful campaign in pursuit of a goal that violates international law…They are now being treated accordingly, and will be held accountable within the framework they created and chose.”

This framework they created was not one dealt with the original Geneva Accords. In fact, argues Marc Cogen, a professor of international law at Ghent Universiy, “no terrorist organization thus far has been deemed a combatant under the laws of armed conflict.”

It cannot be forgotten that many of these men, admitted terrorists, probably have important information that could lead to the obstruction of another terrorist attack on the United States. By granting the detainees prisoner of war status, we actually do away with our ability to investigate them in regards to these possible future occurrences.

Despite their controversial status, American forces have continued to exceed their obligations to the terrorist forces in Cuba. The men may be in close quarters, 8-by-8cells, but they are roofed, clothed and fed with food kosher to their diets. The detainees are allowed to participate in daily Muslim prayers, called to assemble over the camp’s public address system and even guided by signs so that they pray in the direction of Mecca. The men shower daily and are issued soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpastes, flip-flop sandals and copies of the Quran. All prisoners receive medical examinations, care and exercise. It appears to me, the conditions in the American camps far surpass those of the caves in Afghanistan.

With all the evidence, can even the sharpest critic of the Bush administration really compare the treatment of terrorists in Cuba and American forces in Iraq? Those U.S. troops detained by Iraqi forces have been degraded and humiliated on television, appear to be in squalid conditions and have yet to be examined by the neutral International Red Cross Committee. These brave soldiers were carrying out the orders of their commander-in-chief. So is it even possible to compare their detainment to that of dangerous fundamentalists who seek to destroy the American ideal?

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