June 9th, 2004

the letter of the law

After reading this article in the Salt Lake Tribune</a> I got angry.

     The international ban against torturing prisoners of war 
     does not necessarily apply to suspects detained in America's 
     war on terror, Attorney General John Ashcroft told a Senate 
     oversight committee Tuesday.
     Bush administration lawyers concluded the president can legally
     order interrogators to abuse or even kill terrorist suspects in 
     the interests of national security.

But here is the important part:
    Ashcroft said because the al-Qaida terrorist network is not a 
    "high contracting party" to the international treaties known as 
    the Geneva Conventions that prohibit physical abuse of prisoners 
    of war, the treaties' protections do not apply to members of the
    militant Islamic group.

So I read the Geneva Conventions. Its not impossibly complicated, but there are nice summaries available.

Parts of this were familiar to me. I understand that it isn't a blanket statement. It divides clear lines around who is a soldier, and who is a civilian. Wearing a uniform marks you as a target, and therefore prevents civilians from being targets. A soldier who takes that risk gets benefits which don't apply to civilians. Primarily the right to kill.

But it goes a bit further. It also states who is explicitly not covered -- mercenaries.
Mercenaries are specifically excluded from protections. Mercenaries are defined as soldiers who are not nationals of any of the parties to the conflict and are paid more than the local soldiers.

In doing so the Geneva Conventions say something I never appreciated. It says these rules specifically don't apply to some people. The Geneva Conventions don't set rules of etiquette for war in general, they set an agreement between a narrowly defined set of players. I think that the Al-Qaida combatants ought to be entitled to the same rules, but its true that according to the Geneva Convention they don't legally have them.

What I would like to see is a 5th Geneva Convention, to set rules about combat with non-signatories. But thats really not in any nation's interest, since it says "I'll fight clean", but can't make any statement about the other side. It potentially unlevels the playing field.

It could be instead addressed in the scope of something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Actually it seems it is in the UDoHC:
   UDoHR: Article 5

   No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 

And then
     Article 10

     Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by 
     an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his 
     rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him. 

Seems to pretty much eliminate the whole enemy combatants aren't entitled to a public trial thing which the administration is pushing.

There are a dozen others in there, where the current handling of the 'war on terror' (*sigh*) is fundamentally in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But, the UDoHR is not legally binding, not in the US or anywhere else. However it is the basis of 2 documents, which are legally binding. The relevant one is
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
. However while its internationally legally binding, its not really so in the US. Thats because congress has basically said, its a good goal, but we won't actually recognize this in any lawsuits.

What are we left with...?


The US has completely removed the force of law from any international attempt to ensure basic human freedoms, in exchange for preserving our 'national sovereignty'. Iraq was a sovereign nation. But <begin war justification du jour> Saddam was a bad man. he abused his own people<lt;/end&gt; Well he didn't consider them his people. He considered them Kurds. A different tribe. A tribe which he'd been fighting for thousads of years. A history of propaganda had made them them seem different enough from his Baathists that it was easy to ignore the thoughts that they were human, that they felt pain and were entitled to dignity. Not because their skin was the same color, or becuase they lived in the same national borders, but because they were human. So they were killed, ruthlessly, 10 years ago with weapons, and intelligence supplied by the USA and its CIA. fuck it. I'm hopelessly rambling, and equally frustrated.