Friday, December 03, 2004

WSJ Editorial on the ICRC

Yesterday, Thursday, December 2, 2004, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial criticizing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) over its criticism of the US government and its categorization and treatment of detainees, here (subscription required). Important points include:

"The latest salvo was Tuesday's front page story in the New York Times quoting
from an ICRC report complaining about the detention conditions and interrogation
practices used on Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For decades, the very core of Red Cross methodology has been strict confidentiality agreements with cooperating governments. The practice has obvious drawbacks. But it has helped the Red Cross get access to -- and help -- prisoners of genuinely repressive regimes like Nazi Germany and Saddam Hussein's Iraq and ensured that the organization's recommendations are not regarded as political in any partisan sense. But now the ICRC has thrown confidentiality aside to attack the U.S., of all countries. And it matters little that the original leaker in this case may have been in the U.S. government. Officials at ICRC headquarters were only too happy to confirm the document's authenticity, and quickly issued a statement complaining that "significant problems regarding conditions and treatment at Guantanamo Bay have
not yet been adequately addressed."

This follows a similar leak in May regarding the Abu Ghraib prison, as well as the CRC's unprecedented decision to publicly challenge the Bush Administration's original designation of the Gitmo detainees as unlawful combatants rather than risoners of war. What's more, the leaked ICRC documents themselves reveal nterpretations of the laws of war so contrary to what the Geneva Conventions actually say that it's hard to read them as other than products of anti-American animus.

In this latest case, the ICRC is alleging that the psychological conditions faced by Guantanamo detainees are "tantamount to torture." Why? Because -- we kid you not -- prisoners are being held for indefinite periods and the uncertainty is stressful. And because some prisoners are subjected to psychological pressure techniques during interrogations aimed at thwarting further terrorist attacks.

* * *
To unpack the absurdities here, it helps to understand what the Geneva Conventions say about legitimate prisoners of war. The basic idea behind granting POW status
is that soldiers who surrender or are captured are not to be punished so long as
they have behaved according to certain rules -- such as fighting in uniform and
doing their best to direct their own attacks at enemy soldiers rather than civilians. Part of their protection from punishment is that they not be subject to coercive interrogation; they are required only to give name, rank and serial number. They may, however, be held for the duration of the conflict so that they do not return to the battlefield.

The POW concept is certainly a great humanitarian advance, since the slaughter of captured enemies used to be routine and since it provides some incentive to fair battlefield conduct. But it is a concept in jeopardy thanks to its ostensible guardians at the ICRC . By demanding POW status for un-uniformed combatants who target civilians -- in contravention of the plain language of the Geneva Conventions -- the ICRC started the fight over Guantanamo by attempting to remove one of the few carrots we have to encourage humane behavior in war. Now it goes further and demands that these combatants get even more privileges than legitimate POWs. Has it occurred to no one in Geneva that indefinite detention can't possibly be
"tantamount to torture" for illegal combatants if it is the expected course of events for real POWs? The prospect of Guantanamo detainees returning to the battlefield is real, and more than two dozen of those already released have done so.

The ICRC also objects to interrogation pressure that is typically no more abusive than the good cop-bad cop routines common in American police stations. And where the interrogation techniques go further, they include nothing worse than loud music, temperature extremes, and uncomfortable positions. To call such discomforts "a form of torture" is to rob the word of all meaning and implicitly elevate the behavior of truly odious regimes. Finally, from the damned-if-you-do file, we have the ICRC complaining that U.S. doctors took the care to examine the detainees' health to determine if particular stress techniques might be too much for a given individual. This is alleged somehow to be a violation of "medical ethics" rather than the example of American humanity that it actually is.

* * *
Readers who doubt the ICRC's moral drift might want to consult the recent report from the panel on the Abu Ghraib controversy headed by former Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger. It contains an excellent section on the ICRC's recent attempts to pass off as settled international law a radical document that is in fact aimed at assisting terrorists and so-called "national liberation" movements (see page 85 of the report, which is available at That Red Cross document, known as Protocol 1, has always been rejected by the U.S. and other major governments, and the ICRC's attempt to pretend otherwise with its media spin is also a serious abuse of trust.

No longer careful, scrupulous and neutral, the ICRC has become just another politicized pressure group like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger is reportedly planning to visit Washington soon to press the U.S. government on Guantanamo and other issues. We hope he is told that he is leading his organization toward the loss of its $100 million-plus annual subsidy from U.S. taxpayers, as well as its special status come future revisions of the Geneva Conventions."


I will post later my own view of this. However, the link to the Schlesinger report is worth following.

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