Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2001 / 18 Shevat 5762
That's the Pentagon's snazzy code name for America's detention camp for Afghan war detainees in sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The camp has raised several false issues and one very real one.
The first false issue is how well the inmates of this camp are being treated. Human rights inspectors found the "torture" charge to be bogus, kicked up mostly by photos in a British tabloid of prisoners sitting on the ground in shackles under the blaring headline, "TORTURE!" The story, as we in the news business say, did not back up the headline.
In fact, with the exception of such tragedies as the My Lai massacre, we Yanks are known for the fine, four-star care we give to our war detainees.
During World War II, for example, when German prisoners of war were assigned to fill wartime labor vacancies here in the United States, many found themselves not only better off than their fellow Nazis back in Europe, but also treated better than many Americans. Black GI's in the segregated South, for example, often found themselves riding in the back of the bus while German POWs rode up front with other white people.
Today, the Bush administration is right to say our Afghan war captives are better off in our sunny Caribbean detention facility than they were in the frigid caves of Afghanistan, although that's not saying much. In Afghanistan's rugged mountains, a shower is a luxury.
The other false issue that has some of our allies' shorts in a knot is whether our 158 detainees are "prisoners of war" or only what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "unlawful combatants," entitling them to far fewer rights.
By calling the 158 Camp X-Ray captives "unlawful combatants" instead of POWs, U.S. officials don't have to follow the Geneva Convention on captives' rights. Under those international rules of war, prisoners can refuse to answer most questions during interrogation. They also must be repatriated when hostilities end, even though in today's war on terrorism, it's hard to say when hostilities have ceased, since your enemy has devoted his life to killing you in an endless "holy war." As "unlawful combatants," such holy warriors can be held indefinitely.
But, the question that Secretary of State Colin Powell has prudently raised is not whether the captives should be re-classified as POWs. He agrees with President Bush that they probably should not. Powell only questions how the United States should decide what the captives are.
When there is doubt about prisoners' status, the Geneva Convention says, "such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal."
It defines 'prisoner of war' as, "In general, any member of the armed forces of a party to a conflict is a combatant and any member captured by the enemy party is a prisoner of war." POW status and treatment may also extended to other categories of people who do not meet that definition of combatant.
That sounds like subscribers to the convention must presume captives to be "prisoners of war" unless proved otherwise before a "competent tribunal." The military has procedures for hastily setting up a "competent tribunal." But this notion apparently did not cross Bush's mind when he decided without any public announcement on Jan. 18 that the Geneva Convention would not apply to the Guantanamo Bay captives.
On Monday, Bush changed his mind partly. He told reporters he was reconsidering his Jan. 18 decision. Maybe he will allow tribunals, but Bush said he had no intention of granting the captives POW status. In other words, he does not want hearings to change the conclusions we already have reached.
Bush has more than purely humanitarian reasons to follow the "spirit of the convention," as his spokesmen call it. Following the convention's dictates will encourage current and future enemies to observe them if and when they have American combatants in their custody. As complicated as the legalities may be, they boil down to the good old Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.
Maybe it is time to write a new set of rules. We have entered a new age of war that the Geneva Convention, which does not even mention the word "terrorist," doesn't seem to have anticipated.
The Convention requires "armed forces," for example, to "distinguish themselves from civilians with a uniform or other distinctive sign recognizable at a distance." The Taliban and Al Quida fighters do not wear uniforms or insignia, but, quite often, neither do our own special operations soldiers or our allies in the Northern Alliance.
While the Bush administration tries to sort things out, our detainees might as well sit back, relax and soak up some Caribbean sun. One aspect of their status is clear: They're prisoners of a war of words that's not likely to end
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