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    A Times Editorial

    Hedging on the detainees

    The White House's effort to clarify the policy on treatment of Taliban and al-Qaida detainees at Guantanamo only created further confusion.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 10, 2002

    The Bush administration's revised policy governing the status of detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base was a half-step in the right direction, but it is still much too crafty and equivocating. Instead of making a straightforward promise to adhere scrupulously to our obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the White House has left the rest of the world to make sense of contradictory statements such as these:

    We are treating the detainees humanely. But we don't have to.

    We now agree that the Geneva Conventions apply to at least some of the detainees. But we will continue to ignore the Conventions' clear directives governing the treatment and disposition of those detainees.

    We will now make a legal distinction between the forces of Afghanistan's Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terrorists who infiltrated Afghanistan from other countries. But it is a distinction without a difference, because we will still treat both groups as illegal combatants who do not enjoy the protections of prisoners-of-war under the Geneva Conventions.

    Such semantic hair-splitting is unbecoming of the world's greatest democracy. Even worse, the continued hedging could endanger any U.S. troops who are taken prisoner in the future. If we choose to ignore or compromise our obligations under international law, we encourage other countries to do the same.

    The important fact is that U.S. authorities continue to treat all of the Guantanamo detainees -- al-Qaida terrorists as well as Taliban troops -- humanely. Yet that message may be lost to the rest of the world if the White House doesn't act more forthrightly to reassert its commitment to international law.

    President Bush could begin to set things right by giving Secretary of State Colin Powell and his staff a more direct role in setting policy. Powell urged the president to revise the detainee policy as a way of emphasizing to the world our support for the Geneva Conventions -- and of giving other nations fair warning that we will expect our troops to be given full protection under the Conventions.

    The new policy's distinction between Taliban and al-Qaida detainees is valid. The Taliban fought on behalf of the government of Afghanistan, which is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Al-Qaida members are not part of any nation's army, much less representatives of a government that signed the Conventions. Instead, they are part of an international terrorist organization that has infested several host countries in the course of plotting crimes against humanity. While there is no evidence that any of the ragtag Taliban forces were involved in plotting the Sept. 11 war crimes, there is overwhelming evidence that members of al-Qaida were.

    However, the Bush administration effectively erases the distinction between Taliban and al-Qaida detainees by continuing to assert that both groups will be considered illegal combatants rather than prisoners of war. Genuine adherence to the Conventions requires that all detainees be given the presumption of prisoner-of-war status. Determination of each detainee's status is then to be made on a case-by-case basis through military tribunals, as was done during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Under the Conventions' guidelines, Taliban fighters generally would qualify as prisoners of war, and al-Qaida fighters generally would not. The distinction should not compromise either group's humane treatment, but it would set different ground rules for the detainees' interrogations and trials.

    Straightforward adherence to the Conventions would be wise policy for several reasons. It would help to protect any U.S. soldiers taken prisoner as the war against terrorism continues. It also would reaffirm our democratic values while reinforcing an important distinction between soldiers and terrorists. In an open-ended war against terrorists who have exploited our democratic freedoms to attack us, the domestic and international laws that govern our behavior in normal times will come under continual reassessment. Our leaders should remain mindful that our identification with human rights and international law can be one of our best weapons in building broad support for a war against murderers who mock such concepts.

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