2006/07/11

The Geneva Conventions

On the same day, my local paper printed a column by Charles Krauthammer and a letter, both of which suggested that the Supreme Court had gone too far in its Hamdan v Rumsfeld decision. Krauthammer starts by claiming that the WOT (War on Terror) is sort of like America's own Civil War and World War II because all three started on the first year of the decade (1861, 1941 & 2001) and all three had legal challenges after about five years (Habeas Corpus, Japanese-American internments, Hamdan v Rumsfeld).

Then Krauthammer has to explain why this war has dragged on past the customary five-year mark: "But, of course, the war on terror is different. The enemy is shadowy, scattered and therefore more likely to survive and keep the war going for years." In other words, the WOT is not really a war in the traditional sense that we normally have when we have organized units of troops clashing on battlefields. It's also not traditonal in the sense that we can't identify an endpoint to it. We're not going to end it by signing surrender documents on the deck of a battleship, nor are we going to have the leader of the bad guys make a radio announcement. The US might produce a corpse, but as we've seen with Zarqawi, that doesn't mean much.

Nevertheless, Krauthammer thinks it's just awful that President Bush has failed to account for the traditional five-year mark by not having any legal defenses ready for when the Supreme Court inevitably roused itself and issued its customary end-of-war, back-to-normal dictates. He thinks the Court should have held off for however long Bush thought necessary and, well, Americans should simply do without a functioning Constitution until that happy day arrives.

My real problem with his column is that he proposes that Geneva Convetnions protections:

...were never intended to apply to unlawful combatants, terrorists of the al-Qaeda kind. The court tortures the reading of Common Article 3 to confer upon Hamdan - and by extension the man for whom he rode shotgun, bin Laden - the kind of elaborate legal protections that one expects from "civilized peoples."

and as our letter-writer states:

...the court had the temerity to extend Geneva Conventions protection to al-Qaeda even though the conventions do not apply to nonnational, nonuniformed terrorist organizations.

Problem: Once the US President starts making unilateral decisions as who does and who does not merit the protections of the Geneva Conventions, where does it stop? Another country could make the claim that the US began the war against Iraq without UN Security Council approval and that the war was clearly not in self-defense

"...Regarding Iraq, the last Security Council resolution essentially said, 'Look, send the weapons inspectors out to Iraq, have them come back and tell us what they've found -- then we'll figure out what we're going to do. The U.S. was impatient, and decided to invade Iraq -- which was all pre-arranged of course. So, the United States went to war, in violation of the charter."

Sooooo, if the US really wants to play the game of who is and who isn't a "lawful combatant," it might not be a very good idea. US soldiers could very easily find themselves on the wrong side of a war-crimes prosecution. The Geneva Conventions will not suffer very much, if at all, by adding al Qaeda to the list of those entitled to its protections. The Geneva Conventions will suffer horrible, perhaps fatal damage, by having countries pick and choose, in an arbitrary and unilateral fashion, which of their enemies do or do not get the protections it specifies.

Just as Bush & Co are perfectly willing to see untold numbers of young Americans and far greater numbers of Iraqis consigned to death or dismemberment in order to fight the Iraq War, so too am I willing to see all the members of the Bush Administration serve life sentences for the war crimes committed over the past five years. Wouldn't bother me a bit.

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