It’s safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It’s also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that “the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk” from hunger and “rampant” dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and “are not sheltered from severe winter conditions.”
The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s insistence that X-Ray’s prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House’s February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.
In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.
But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead “unlawful combatants,” suggesting that they don’t deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords’ broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners–those Al Qaeda “Arab Afghans” who fought as allies of the Taliban regime–the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.
A press outspun by Rumsfeld’s daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. “Unlawful combatants” is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: “Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise.” Only a court or other “competent tribunal”–not the Defense Secretary or the President–can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon’s own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that “when doubt exists” about a prisoner’s status, “tribunals must be convened”–as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.