Humanity at Camp X-Ray

For trial or not: The Geneva Conventions should govern how prisoners are treated.

January 22, 2002

THE UNITED STATES should maintain the same standards of treatment of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners that it would demand for any U.S. citizens taken prisoner by another country.

This principle may be argued as pure ethics, as common sense in the real world of reciprocity or as public relations in the unending battle for the high ground in world opinion.

Those three perspectives are not unrelated.

In practical terms, this means complying with the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

It means complying with the advice of investigators from the International Committee of the Red Cross. And it means satisfying the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, whose principal power is to chide very publicly.

Volunteer watchdog organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are better regarded as helpful than as pests.

The Geneva Conventions say people captured in combat are prisoners of war unless or until a duly constituted tribunal decides they are something else. International laws of war do not preclude interrogation, only the use of violence or threat of violence. They do not rule out such military tribunals as President Bush authorized.

The prisoners filling Camp X-Ray, as the holding area of the U.S. base at Guantanamo is known, include tough characters who would do harm if unrestrained. They are initially in chain link cages with roofs and floors but no walls, while more humane prison quarters are being built. They are probably getting better food and medical care than in their own camps.

There is some awkwardness here. It is no crime to fight for the other side. Prisoners of war are released when hostilities end. But in the war on terrorism, the end of hostilities may never be proclaimed.

Reasons may arise to justify bending the Geneva Conventions. Greater reasons will argue for compliance in spirit and letter.

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