Rights of prisoners: A grave question from the cave
NEW YORK - When some 50 Taliban and Al Qaida prisoners — mostly shackled, hooded or sedated — were flown from Afghanistan to the United States last week, several international human rights groups protested about the abhorrent conditions under which they were transported.
But one TV commentator, clearly reflecting the views of US right-wing groups, seemed surprised about the protests.
"Why are these groups complaining about the treatment meted out to these prisoners. After all, weren't these guys living in caves?," he asked rather sarcastically.
But the virtues of American democracy have made the US a country which traditionally conforms to the rule of law — and thereby distinguishes itself from politically repressive regimes.
When you tout the righteousness of "Western civilisation" and display an air of moral superiority, how can you justify your actions when they are on par with that of your enemy?
Not surprisingly, even US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believes there is no legitimate reason for any complaints from either Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International which have protested about the treatment of prisoners.
"I can assure you," he said, "that these folks are in an environment that is a lot more hospitable than the environments we found them in."
But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson of Ireland, thinks otherwise.
"All detainees must at all times be treated humanely, consistent with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Geneva Convention of 1949," she told reporters last week.
The prisoners are being held in the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has been under lease to the US government since 1903, long before Fidel Castro assumed power.
Robinson said there were reports about the manner in which the prisoners were transported and the conditions in which they are being detained.
"I think it's important at a time of difficulty that human rights and international humanitarian standards be clearly upheld and observed," she said.
The US is calling its prisoners "unlawful combatants" and "detainees".
This provides an obvious loophole to avoid treating them as "prisoners of war" (POWs). Only POWs are entitled to humane treatment under the Geneva Convention.
In an editorial titled "Follow the Geneva Convention", the Washington Post said last week that international treaties ratified by the US give the detainees specific rights, "rights that the Bush administration should respect."
By the end of the week, the number of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay had increased to 110.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is to be given access to prisoners next week in an attempt to determine whether they are being mistreated.
The treatment of the prisoners has also triggered an open debate in European capitals. Kevin McNamara, a member of the Labour Party in England, poses a legitimate question: "If we merely compare our actions to what the Taliban did, don't we put the West in danger of losing the high moral ground?"
The detainees include both members of Taliban and of the Al Qaida network.
Both the Taliban and Al Qaida were involved in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, and the overwhelming view of legal opinion is that they were combatants in an international conflict.
As a result, their status is defined and protected by the Geneva convention of 1949 which governs the conditions under which POWs are treated.
But Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke denied any mistreatment of prisoners. She said that each detainee is being given three "culturally appropriate meals."
"They have daily opportunities to shower, exercise and receive medical attention." She also said that they are receiving "very humane treatment," in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
The prisoners have all been shaved triggering a protest from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) which says the removal of beards has violated one of their religious rights.
Brigadier General Mike Lehner, who is in charge of the naval base, said prisoners have been given hot meals, showers and roofs over their heads.
They also get day-glow orange prisoner jump suits. "But they don't get to pick the colour," he noted.