Degrading America's Image
Published: June 6, 2006
For more than seven decades, civilized nations have adhered to minimum standards of decent behavior toward prisoners of war — agreed to in the Geneva Conventions. They were respected by 12 presidents and generations of military leaders because they reflected this nation's principles and gave Americans some protection if they were captured in wartime.
It took the Bush administration to make the world doubt Washington's fidelity to the rules. And The Los Angeles Times, reporting yesterday on a dispute over updating the Army rulebook known as the Field Manual, reminded us that there is good reason to worry.
At issue is Directive 2310 on the treatment and questioning of prisoners, an annex to the Field Manual. It has long contained a reference to Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which covers all prisoners, whether they meet the common definition of prisoners of war or are the sort of prisoners the administration classifies as "unlawful enemy combatants," like suspected members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
Article 3 prohibits the use of torture and other overt acts of violence. But Mr. Bush's civilian lawyers removed it from the military rulebook over the objections of diplomats and military lawyers. Mr. Bush has said he does not condone torture, but he has also said he would decide for himself when to follow the ban on torture imposed by Congress last year. Removing the Geneva Conventions from Army regulations gives the world more cause for doubt.
Article 3 also prohibits "outrages on personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." (Remember the hooded man, the pyramids of naked prisoners?) The Pentagon says the new rules require humane treatment, but that is not much comfort, since the Bush team has shown that it does not define humane treatment the way most people do.
There are other aspects of Article 3 that this administration probably finds inconvenient, like its requirement that governments holding prisoners subject them to actual courts "affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples." The hearings at Guantánamo Bay hardly meet that description.
It defies belief that this administration is still clinging to its benighted policies on prisoners after the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the killings at American camps in Afghanistan and the world's fresh outrage over what appears to have been the massacre of Iraqi men, women and children in the village of Haditha.