Volume 96, Issue 95
Friday, March 28, 2003

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Can Americans point fingers over POW treatment?

By Dan Perry
Gazette Staff

The American government has expressed outrage over apparent Iraqi treatment of prisoners of war, but some experts suggest the United States has also contravened principles outlined in the Geneva Convention.

"The basic [protected rights] are that prisoners be treated with respect, and they must be protected against violence, intimidation, insults and public curiosity. We've raised concerns about how [prisoners] are treated on both sides," said John Tackaberry, spokesperson for the Canadian section of Amnesty International.

United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has condemned Iraq for violating the Geneva Convention by airing pictures of American POWs. According to James Ross, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch, America's conscience is not entirely clean either.

"[HRW] has been raising concerns about the treatment of [alleged Taliban and Al-Qaeda] prisoners (captured in Afghanistan) at Guantanamo Bay; an important concern has been the question of the prisoners' legal status under international law," Ross said. "The U.S. government made a blanket decision that none of [the 600 prisoners] at Guantanamo Bay were entitled to POW or other protective status.

"[The Convention] prohibits the displaying of prisoners as a matter of public humiliation," said Michael Lynk, a law professor at Western. "I don't think that a picture of a POW, per se, would be a violation. The question is, then, [whether] the intention is to humiliate the prisoners or the effect is humiliation."

However, international law can be tricky to enforce.

"The Americans are creating a climate of selective application of international law," Lynk said. "The Americans have essentially put [the prisoners] beyond the reach of international law by taking them to Guantanamo Bay.

"Primary responsibility for enforcing the conventions lies with the government responsible, and [HRW] will certainly press governments that violate the conventions to prosecute those responsible," Ross said. "We've already pressed the U.S. government to investigate and prosecute if, appropriate, those responsible for acts of torture, as are alleged to have happened at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan."

According to Ross, the U.S. criticism of Iraq's treatment of American POWs may lack legitimacy. "The U.S. would obviously be able to make a stronger case for the protection of their POWs if they [themselves] were scrupulously abiding by the Geneva Convention," he said.

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2002 THE GAZETTE