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Torturing the Geneva Convention

What people call the Geneva Convention is actually a treaty. The world's civilized nations convened - held a convention - in Geneva, Switzerland. They drafted a body of rules which governs, among other things, the treatment of prisoners taken in war.

A treaty becomes the law of the land of each nation which ratifies or agrees to keep the treaty. The United States, as one of the leading conveners at Geneva, helped shape the treaty and signed it. The United States is one of the leading signatories of the Geneva Accords, the Geneva Convention.

This is what people call international law. Many countries - most countries today - have agreed to keep this same law. The courts in each of the signatory countries are obligated, by law, to enforce it. We could trace the development of the law back to the Bible, to the Noahide Law and two great early 18th century gentile scholars of the Law, Hugo Grotius and John Selden. But we won't. It's enough that the Geneva Convention is valid law. It's like a covenant. The United States has solemnly pledged - vowed, in essence - to keep it. The terms of the Geneva treaty, the international law, apply to United States forces wherever they go.

Article Three of the Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war. It prohibits "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture." It also prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity: in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."

Professional soldiers tend to treat the Geneva Convention very seriously. The United States Army has long taught the following basic principle. We phrase it this way here not "just" as a matter of morality and law but as matter of fighting and winning the nation's wars. "When an enemy fighter knows that he will be treated well by United States forces if he is captured, he is more likely to give up."

America's moral integrity - and the enemy's knowledge that the United States keeps the laws of war - used to induce enemy fighters to surrender. Now that America's faithfulness in keeping those laws is doubtful, due to the president's own statements and his cabinet's - as well as admitted, policy-driven violations of the law, at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - that inducement is gone.

Four years ago, during Liberia's last collapse, Charles Taylor, the warlord president, wanted to torture prisoners. His forces had taken them in the course of fighting a civil war. He decided to call them "unlawful combatants." Having thus despatched every issue of morality and law, he tortured them as he wanted. Some were murdered, some were maimed, some lost their minds after being maimed and raped. Charles Taylor now awaits trial in Holland, accused of war crimes - violations of the Geneva Convention and the God-given rights of humankind.

When the United States calls her forces' enemies "unlawful combatants," claiming that the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to them - when we lower the bar for the treatment of our own prisoners - other countries feel justified in doing the same thing. When the president of the United States says that "humiliating and degrading treatment" is too vague a standard for the United States to keep, other countries feel justified in finding it too vague too.

Imagine a United States Special Forces soldier captured by Syrian or Iranian forces while - for instance - investigating secret weapons programs. If the United States doesn't live up to the laws of war regarding foreign enemies, why should they? What earthly or moral force is left to prevent that soldier from being tortured, locked in a cold room, and murdered, without a trial or opportunity to see the evidence against him?

We live in a strange age. The Nazis, the old Soviet Union, Red China, North Korea, used to ignore the laws of war and commit horrible crimes against humanity all the time. They signed the Geneva Convention but didn't practice it. So the United States, which always at least made it official policy to keep to the terms of Geneva, kept the moral high ground.

Today the highest officials of the United States say that they want and need to "blur" the Geneva convention - allegedly, because the current enemy is unlike all previous enemies. The United States, the very symbol of liberty, lawfulness and trust in God, wants to lower the bar.

After World War II, no one believed that the French would ever leave Algeria. Algeria was a province of France on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea, completely a part of France. It had been French for almost a century. When the rising Arab middle class began claiming a larger part of the national pie, it created a little friction, the French resisted, and a small insurgency began. But the French claimed the high road.

They claimed to be above the local Arabs' savagery. They insisted that they belonged in Algeria in order to elevate it, to civilize it. Theirs was a mission of civilization; they were part of a higher civilization, they said. But then they began to torture their Arab prisoners. The French soldiery regarded them as "unlawful combatants."

In four short years, the legitimacy of France's domination of Algeria, even in the eyes of the French, collapsed. They lost their Algerian houses, farms and businesses, and everything. People who had never been to France, who knew nothing but Algeria, had to "return" to France as refugees.

Our troops need all the moral authority they can get. So does our country. No government can claim an unconditional right to God's grace or mercy. If the government of the United States keeps driving us down the hellish road we're on, from Abu Ghraid and Guantanamo to who knows where, we're in trouble.

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line. . .
Your mercy on your people, Lord.

(Rudyard Kipling, Recessional, 1897)

26 September, 2007/4 Elul, 5767

Some parts of this piece, including the observation that 'when an enemy fighter knows that he will be treated well by United States forces if he is captured, he is more likely to give up,"were taken from an essay by Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, author of Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America from Baghdad to Washington.



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