by Judith Evans
Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Extraordinary rendition. Torture. In the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, these words symbolized some of the worst aspects of the War on Terror. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States detained terrorism suspects at prisons in Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Detainees were subjected to inhumane and degrading conditions as Bush Administration officials showed contempt for international humanitarian law.
What Happened at Abu Ghraib
Details and photographs of violent and intimidating acts against detainees at Abu Ghraib emerged in April, 2004. In his report to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, Major General Antonio Taguba described abuses at the prison, including:
Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees
Forcing detainees to remove their clothes and remain naked for days
Forcing a male detainee to wear a dog collar or chain around his neck to be photographed with a female soldier
Allowing unmuzzled military dogs to intimidate or even bite detainees
Arranging and photographing detainees in sexually explicit positions
Attaching wires to a detainee’s body to simulate electric torture
The abuse at Abu Ghraib was not an isolated incident. The United States had already been sending terrorism suspects to offshore locations, such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, detainees faced intimidation tactics such as sleep deprivation, hooding, and extreme temperatures or noise. Other suspects were sent to Syria, Egypt, and other foreign locations – a process known as “extraordinary rendition” – where they faced torture.
President George W. Bush had stated that captured members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda should be humanely treated. Images and reports from Abu Ghraib, however, painted a far different picture. Military interrogators were using techniques that violated humanitarian treaties to which the United States is a party.
Third Geneva Convention: Humane Treatment
Since 1949, the Third Geneva Convention has protected prisoners of war from abuse by their captors. Article 13 states that “prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated.” It specifically protects prisoners against “acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” The detainees at Abu Ghraib had clearly been subjected to these prohibited acts.
But who exactly is a prisoner of war? According to Article 4, prisoners of war may be “members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict.” “Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including organized resistance movements” are considered prisoners of war as long as they meet the following conditions:
a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates
b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance
c) That of carrying arms openly
d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war
When an individual’s prisoner of war status is in doubt, Article 5 provides that they are protected by the Convention “until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.”
Convention Against Torture: No Exceptions
The United Nations Convention Against Torture prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world.” The United States ratified the Convention in 1994, and is bound by its provisions.
Contrary to assertions by various Bush Administration personnel, the Convention makes no exceptions to the provisions against torture. Article 2 states that there are “no exceptions whatsoever,” including “threats of war” or “political instability.”
The Torture Memos
Through a series of memos, Bush Administration lawyers argued that certain human rights provisions of international law did not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan. The memos showed a disturbing disregard for the rule of law.
In January 2002, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Yoo wrote a memo claiming that detainees from the Afghanistan conflict were not entitled to prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions. That same month, White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzalez stated that President Bush could declare combatants from Al Qaeda and the Taliban ineligible for protection. These statements disregarded the right of combatants to protection under the Geneva Conventions pending determination of their status by a tribunal.
Jay S. Bybee, of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, further attempted to circumvent International law in an August 2002 memo. “Cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts,” he reasoned, do not necessarily cause pain severe enough to be prohibited by the Convention Against Torture and the federal anti-torture statute.
A March 2003 memo from John C. Yoo claimed that as commander-in-chief, President Bush had the legal authority to approve whatever techniques were necessary to protect national security. This assertion disregards the Convention Against Torture’s “no exceptions whatsoever” provision.
In April 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a memo approving abusive interrogation techniques for Guantanamo prison, including isolation, temperature changes, sleep schedule changes, and increasing fear.
Some Bush Administration officials, however, argued that it was in the United States’ best interests to apply the Geneva Conventions to the Afghan conflict. In a January 2002 memo, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote that disregarding the Conventions would “undermine protections of the laws of war for our troops” and result in “adverse consequences for our conduct of foreign policy.”
On February 2, 2003, State Department legal advisor William H. Taft IV also noted that failure to apply the Geneva Conventions to the Afghan conflict would endanger our troops if they were captured.
Lack of Accountability
The Bush Administration’s blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law resulted in an astonishing lack of accountability. Top government officials, including President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were not charged with any crimes. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of crimes. Other soldiers were reprimanded without criminal charges. The Director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center had his conviction and reprimand removed from his record.
Former Abu Ghraib detainees filed a federal class-action lawsuit against a military contractor who provided interrogators. A federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit in 2007.
Impact on U.S. Credibility
When a country as powerful as the United States violates human rights laws with little or no accountability, the effects reach around the globe. Amnesty International pointed out in a 2005 report that the United States “sets the tone for governmental behavior worldwide.” The same report stated that governments in Israel, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Nepal, and other countries have violated human rights and humanitarian laws in the name of fighting terrorism.
Western democratic countries are no exception. Human Rights Watch notes that European Union countries such as Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the United Kingdom have sent or attempted to send terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture.
Stain of Human Rights Violations
Abu Ghraib prison was closed in April 2004. President Biden has vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo. However, the stain of human rights violations lingers on. Governments must recognize the inherent dignity of every human. Perhaps the United States still “sets the tone” worldwide. A sincere effort at accountability, such as a truth and reconciliation commission, would begin the process of rehumanizing that tone.