This Sunday marked the first anniversary of George W. Bush”s ascendance to the presidency. A lot has happened since then. Enough to make most people forget about how he came into office weaseling, browbeating and scheming to stymie vote-counters until appointees of his father and his father”s patrons dispensed with the anachronistic system of voting and elevated him to the presidency. Bush, like his Supreme Court benefactors, is today showing that he, too, has little use for the rule of law or trusts sharing authority with others. He is proving it, appropriately enough, in Cuba.
The administration has decided to ignore one of the most widely accepted and respected pieces of international law ever created, the Geneva Convention, declaring captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are mere “illegal combatants” and not soldiers entitled to its protection.
That technical argument could possibly be made for the al-Qaeda members, but it”s absurd to say, as the Pentagon has, that Taliban soldiers weren”t really soldiers because they didn”t have uniforms. And in any case, the convention requires that detainees be protected by it until a “competent tribunal,” which doesn”t mean a declaration from Donald Rumsfeld, determines their status.
The European press has already been having a fit over the conditions the prisoners are being held in at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The hand ringing over them being exposed to the elements seems unnecessary. They are, after all, exposed to the elements of Cuba. We should be so lucky.
But these should clue us in to the criticism we are likely to face over what happens to the prisoners next. Rumblings about more substantive matters are starting to be heard and these are what pose the real danger for us.
The United States will soon begin interrogating the prisoners, with no promise of legal representation. There are worries that inappropriate measures will be employed in the interrogations, which are justified by statements from Rumsfeld such as “I do not feel the slightest concern at their treatment.” He repeatedly reminds us that the prisoners are getting more than they deserve.
The possibility of eventually trying the detainees in military tribunals is also of great concern. Set up for the purpose of preventing anyone but the administration from deciding how to handle these prisoners, they circumvent regular courts and allow the fates of the prisoners to be dictated by our self-appointed betters. Our courts have successfully prosecuted many terrorists and foreign criminals, but trusting them would mean sharing authority, which the administration has been hell-bent on avoiding.
The reason employing military tribunals is not a good idea is obvious. No one outside of this country trusts them. European countries, which have apprehended many suspects wanted by the United States, are already refusing to extradite them because of the possibility they will be tried in forums that seem to defy every legal norm of modern society. And they are absolutely right. Sending people to closed courts that likely use secret evidence, with uncertain legal standards, without guaranteed adequate counsel and that can hand out unappealable death sentences is something no country should be willing to do.
And what happens to our credibility on human rights issues after we try people this way? What do we say when other countries put their own citizens or even ours on trial in such unjust courts?
It”s hard to muster sympathy for members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but that isn”t necessary to see that our treatment of them has to be better than the “intense interrogation” and military tribunals the administration has made clear it prefers to use. This isn”t about them, but about us, how the rest of the world sees the United States and thus how they will be willing to interact with us. Do we want to squeeze every last drop of information out of people we found in Afghanistan and then quickly and easily dispose of them, or do we want to get the people captured by other countries too and all the people they will capture in the future?
When we diplomatically and militarily engage in new campaigns against states that have to be dealt with if we”re serious about fighting terrorism, such as Syria and Iraq, do we want the support that will require from our allies or do we want to alienate them with how we deal with a handful of prisoners?
The federal courts can handle them. That clever lawyers could get them off or trying them somehow poses a danger to judges or jurors is absurd. Our courts have handled dangerous terrorists many times before. Their lawyers didn”t get them off and there haven”t been any reprisals against those who convicted them.
The important thing is that they had lawyers and their trials had legitimacy. It may seem satisfying to deny the protections of civilization to our often barbarous enemies, but if we don”t we are tying our hands in the future and squandering what moral authority we have.
The prisoners in Cuba need to have their status determined by a competent tribunal, be taken out of the legal limbo they have been consigned to and brought to a proper U.S. court (or an international court if the administration prefers) if we want to preserve our capability to apprehend such people in the future.
The administration, from covering up who it meets with to burying old presidential records (both in contravention of the law), has made quite clear its attitude toward being accountable to anyone but itself. Little complaint was raised about it ignoring the law in the United States, but the foreign reaction thus far has to make Bush realize that our allies won”t be so easily rolled over. Bush”s contempt for international law is well known (he wanted a new strategic arrangement with Russia to be based on a handshake instead of a treaty), but our ability to act in the world is at stake. Preserving it is simple: Just follow the law.
Peter Cunniffe can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.