Saturday, May 01, 2004

Iraqi prisoners and war crimes

It's no great surprise that the rest of the world is outraged over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American and British interrogators.

Moreover, it shouldn't be a surprise that it has happened. After all, it's happened before in this "war on terror." Indeed, the pattern now is so strong that serious questions arise about the possibility that American officials could be charged with war crimes.

Recall, if you will, that these torture techniques first cropped in Afghanistan in March of last year, even before we invaded Iraq. They elicited a letter of protest from Joan Fitzpatrick, a legal specialist in human rights, which I published in full previously:
The "interrogation" techniques described in [the New York Times piece] "U.S. Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody" (March 4, 2003, A14) violate basic norms of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions require humane treatment of all prisoners, whether POWs or "unlawful combatants," and regardless of the nature of the conflict. All acts of violence or intimidation, outrages upon personal dignity, and humiliating and degrading treatment are strictly forbidden. Does the Department of Defense argue that chaining naked prisoners to the ceiling, in freezing weather, and kicking them to keep them awake for days on end, are practices consistent with the Geneva Conventions? Is the DOD prepared to tolerate this treatment of American POWs in the Iraq war?

These practices also violate human rights treaties to which the United States is a party, specifically the prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The United States may not transfer Al Qaeda suspects to other states to facilitate their torture; that too is a violation. Moreover, there is no state on earth "that does not have legal restrictions against torture" ("Questioning of Accused Expected to Be Human, Legal and Aggressive", March 4, 2003, A13). The prohibition on torture is a peremptory norm of customary international law binding on all nations. The torturer is the enemy of all mankind.

If President Bush has commanded these practices, he has committed serious international crimes and crimes against the laws of the United States that are impeachable offenses. Congress must investigate immediately.

Secretary Rumsfeld last Friday again revealed his complete ignorance of the laws of war by suggesting that Iraqi POWs could be tried before military commissions. They may be tried only by court martial, under rules identical to those applicable to U.S. forces. As Bush and Rumsfeld are poised to launch a major war in Iraq, the world stands appalled by their utter disregard for the most fundamental norms of humanity in wartime. Heaven help our "enemies" and our own soldiers.

Fitzgerald's warning, clearly, was prophetic.

As Digby observes, the pattern continued with the torture of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay:
One of the five Britons recently returned to the UK from Guantanamo Bay has claimed that he was subjected to cruel and sadistic treatment by US authorities.

Jamal al Harith, from Manchester, told the Daily Mirror today that detainees of Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta had to face frequent beatings, prolonged periods of isolation and traumatic psychological torture.

The 37-year-old was held at Guantanamo Bay for just over two years after coalition forces brought about the fall of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. The divorced father-of-three said that the behaviour of prison guards was a deliberate affront to Islam and exacted to offend and terrorise the detainees.

Indeed, Amnesty International has already denounced this pattern of abuse, as well as the consistent denials of American officials that this is part of American policy, observing:
Such responses smack of complacency. After all, the USA is a country where some 3,600 people, including scores of juvenile offenders and mentally ill inmates, await execution, and tens of thousands of others are held in "super-maximum" security facilities in conditions -- solitary confinement and reduced sensory stimulation -- which the United Nations Committee against Torture, has referred to as "excessively harsh".

Billmon today explores the problem in detail, suggesting that perhaps the techniques are originating with Israeli intelligence or, just as likely, the "independent contractors" whose bloody footprints are beginning to appear all over the Iraqi map.

The real question (as Seymour Hersh points out) is: How far up the chain of command does this go?

Digby has previously pointed out the hollowness of George W. Bush's disclaimers regarding the use of torture -- and indeed, his current claims of being "outraged" not only ring insincere, they are silly:
"Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That's not the way we do things in America."

No, it's just the way we do things in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan.

What's particularly disingenuous about Bush's disclaimers and his proclamations of extreme horror at the images (or is it just horror at having the images gain global distribution?) is that it tries to place the blame on the grunts who are carrying out the torture. It ignores the fact that these tortures could not take place without approval from above.

It's already been pointed out in the New York Times that the administration's response amounts to scapegoating:
Mr. Myers said the accused men, all from an Army Reserve military police unit, had been told to soften up the prisoners by more senior American interrogators, some of whom they believe were intelligence officials and outside contractors.

"This case involves a monumental failure of leadership, where lower-level enlisted people are being scapegoated," Mr. Myers said. "The real story is not in these six young enlisted people. The real story is the manner in which the intelligence community forced them into this position."

As most news sources covering the matter have pointed out, these behaviors are clear violations of international treaties and international criminal law. Unfortunately, the same Bush administration under which they have occurred has demonstrated a longstanding (and utterly groundless) hostility to the international criminal courts -- including signing into law an act to protect Americans from being prosecuted by international courts for war crimes.

The fact that Bush and Co. took these steps beforehand should raise suspicions. Add to it the fact that the pattern has become a consistent one that appears throughout our handling of prisoners of the "war on terror," and truly grave questions arise regarding the level of culpability for these acts.

Indeed, if it can be shown that approval for this kind of behavior rises all the way to the upper echelons of the administration, then Americans may be confronted with the possibility that their leaders are in fact war criminals.

Professor Fitzpatrick, tragically, died suddenly two months after writing that letter. But when I interviewed her in March, she emphasized that any winking and nudging by the administration toward this behavior amounted to an impeachable offense.

Her call for a congressional investigation last year, of course, went utterly unheeded, as did her warning. Perhaps it's time we finally listened.

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