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How can U.S. force others to follow rules when it doesn't

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


The United States is rightly livid over the duplicity of North Korea, which admitted earlier this month that it has maintained a viable nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 arms control accord. The agreement had given North Korea funding for energy supplies in exchange for abandoning its nukes research. We now know it took our largess and kept its weapons program humming.

Enforcing international agreements is a tricky business. There are two ways to go: fear or aspiration. Enforcement through fear inflicts punishment for a breach, such as war or sanctions. Enforcement through aspiration means creating an environment that makes respect for treaties a sin qua non of membership in the developed world. It is possible to establish a sensibility that says: Nations that want to be part of the advancing world community must live up to their pledges.

For decades, Western nations have been collectively nudging the world in that direction. But since coming to office, President Bush has withdrawn the United States from this fraternity.

Bush has stomped on more international agreements than any president in recent history, and you can't create a universal norm for respecting treaty terms when the richest, most powerful country in the world asserts its unilateralism any time an accord or convention becomes inconvenient. Our "humble" foreign policy, as candidate Bush promised, has come down to little more than "might makes right."

Among the litany of international agreements Bush has dashed or ignored is the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. He pulled out in order to clear the stage for building a national missile defense shield. On this, Bush didn't bother getting Senate approval.

Add our withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol on controlling greenhouse gases and the way Bush has ignored world trade rules by imposing tariffs on steel imports and raising agricultural subsidies, and a profile emerges of a leader who cares little about our nation's prior commitments.

But nowhere has the Bush administration demonstrated a greater contempt for international law than in prosecuting this "war" on terrorism. Here, the kind of international treaties being ignored are those that guarantee American-type due process rights to prisoners -- even in wartime. They are the very protections we would be demanding with vein-popping vehemence were our citizens being held indefinitely and without charge by another country.

There are nearly 600 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In determining their fate, the administration has flatly refused to follow the Geneva Conventions, which gives each person captured on a battlefield presumptive prisoner-of-war status and requires individual hearings to determine otherwise. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, none of the Guantanamo detainees qualifies as a POW based solely on the administration's say-so.

Vienna Colucci, a program director at Amnesty International, says if the remaining prisoners are not POWs then they have rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty we ratified in 1992. The covenant gives all people, under any circumstances, the right to be informed of the charges against them and the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention.

Colucci says the administration is playing "pick and choose," claiming we are in a war but saying the rules of war do not apply.

"If those at Guantanamo are not combatants in the war," Colucci says, "if they have been illegitimately taking up arms, then, under international law, they should be charged, they should have a trial."

At this moment, some of the Guantanamo prisoners, dubbed "the worst of the worst" by Rumsfeld, are being released because they were found to be not dangerous or guilty of any crime.

Maybe, had the men gotten before an impartial tribunal, those mistakes could have been rectified earlier.

The immigrants picked up in the U.S. in the sweep after Sept. 11 have also been denied their rights under the covenant. At least 36 detainees were held without charge for 28 days or more. One, a Saudi Arabian, wasn't charged for 119 days.

We have also been flouting the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Ratified in 1969, the convention guarantees imprisoned foreign nationals immediate access to their consulates and vice versa. Yet civil rights groups have documented numerous cases where foreign nationals detained after Sept. 11 were denied contact for weeks.

In the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent, who was detained on Sept. 26 as he was changing planes in New York, our government has simply refused to tell Canada anything about his whereabouts. As reported by St. Petersburg Times writer Susan Taylor Martin, after spending nearly two weeks in a Brooklyn detention center, Arar was deported, apparently to Jordan, without any word to his consulate. He was then taken by Jordanian authorities to Syria where he is now being held. Canada has filed a formal protest against the United States over the treaty violation.

By breaching the 1994 arms control accord, the North Korean leadership has proven itself untrustworthy -- its signature meaningless, its word mud.

Sound familiar?

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