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POW treatment is hypocritical

Greg Parnell | Sunday, December 7, 2003

In 1949, nations around the world agreed to the Geneva Accords, a series of protocols that were designed to define ethical rules during a time of war. For example, prisoners of war can only be questioned via certain modes, cannot be tortured, must be granted their basic life needs and retain their due process rights. One of the many reasons that the United States decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein was because of Iraq’s repeated violation of this agreement. However, infringements of international law do not occur solely in oppressive tyrannies. For, over the past two years, the United States has knowingly broken these same Geneva Accords.The most egregious breach of the agreement thus far is the condition of the “enemy combatants” currently held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The government has called them by this term intentionally, because if they are not “prisoners of war,” then they are not protected by the Geneva Accords. Such slight of hand is a tactic one would usually expect from a despotic government. Most Americans know that enemies of our nation are currently being held there, but very few actually know what is going on within the base. What we do know is that the Red Cross was allowed a visit to the base to check in on the detainees.Red Cross team representative Christopher Girod reported that the principal concern for most of the detainees was not about the conditions themselves, but about how long they were going to be held. “It’s always the number one question,” he said. “They don’t know about the future.” Red Cross officials concluded from their interviews that holding enemy combatants in such limbo is dangerous to their mental health. “One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely,” Girod said.The government takes the position that the detainees not only hold vital knowledge about terrorist networks, but that they now have learned lessons about the American system that could reveal important information to the terrorists, if they were to be released. Therefore, they feel that it is necessary to hold these prisoners for the duration of the hostilities. Clearly, this is the course of action that is in the best interests of our nation.However, the war on terrorism is a war that could conceivably never end. Does this mean, then, that we should hold these men indefinitely, when they have not received a trial of any sort? Critics argue that since they are not Americans, they do not have due process rights. Our soldiers are the ones risking their lives around the world, so the least we can do is take measures to protect their security as much as possible. Better our enemies and attackers suffer than our soldiers or even civilians. Clearly, there must be some middle ground. Setting a precedent of placing one’s opposition into prison camps without any form of due process and no indication of how long they would be held must be prevented. Yes, we must protect ourselves, but we must find ways to do it without surrendering the things that make us different from our enemies. If the only way the United States can remain secure is through this abuse, how are we any better than the corrupt regimes that we devote billions of dollars into toppling?Thankfully, the Supreme Court has decided to make a ruling on the case. A decision as to whether the detainees have due process rights, whether they can be held without trial and what form of a trial would ensure is expected in July. This decision will be a very influential one. Hopefully, the judges will rule in favor of the prisoners, demonstrating to the world that the United States is not a place where hypocrisy is tolerated. Their status as prisoners of war will be reinstated, their protection under the Geneva Accords granted and their cases heard by a fair judge or jury. We must do everything we can to keep the United States safe. That includes keeping us safe from within, by protecting those freedoms and rights that make us a country to emulate, even when it would be easier to revoke them. When we say that America is different, let us be true to our word.

Greg Parnell is a sophomore political science and economics major. Contact him at gparnell@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.