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Torture and the War On Terror

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.