|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
31 Jan. - 6 Feb. 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Welcome to the peep show
Just what is going on at Guantanamo Bay? Pascale Ghazaleh finds out why Camp X-Ray is only as transparent as the US military wants it to be
Long ago, before the minefields were sown and the cages built, Guantanamo Bay must have been a pleasant place. It even served, for a time, as the Caribbean retreat of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst -- he of Citizen Kane fame, the same man accused of fomenting the Spanish-American War to boost tabloid sales. The spot was leased to the US Navy shortly after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbour in 1898, and the 99-year lease was renegotiated in early 1976 as part of the amnesty agreement reached in the Patricia Hearst federal bank robbery case.
It is unlikely, however, that the 158 men at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp know this curious history. They know so little of their surroundings, after all. The 1.8x2.4m cages they inhabit are euphemistically referred to as "open- sided wire cells," but they can hardly afford much of a vista. Apart from exercise and shower "opportunities," the detainees occupy these coops at all time. They were brought to the prison camp in shackles, ears muffled, surgical masks on their faces, gloves on their hands and goggles covered with black tape over their eyes. At Camp X-Ray, there is no room for doubt: transparency is a one- way mirror.
The measures taken while transporting the prisoners constitute torture, according to the Geneva Conventions, but whether or not they will be constructed as such seems to rest on a question of legal status. The US does not seem to have decided just what the detainees are, having failed to designate them officially as prisoners of war. Although Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld says they are being treated as POWs, he has also made it clear that he is not qualified to pass judgement on this point; nor, apparently, is it causing him to lose much sleep. The New York Times of 23 January quoted Rumsfeld as saying: "To give standing under a Geneva Convention to a terrorist organisation that's not a country is something that I think some of the lawyers who did not drop out of law school as I did worry about as a precedent."
Then, on 26 January, US Secretary of State Colin Powell broke rank and called on the administration to apply the Geneva Conventions to all the prisoners. Yet even this unexpected move disregards a fundamental point: the Geneva Conventions do not provide for the luxury of speculation. They recognise only two categories of persons in war: civilians and soldiers, and "establish a rule that it is not for the military forces that capture prisoners to determine whether they can be ruled not to be prisoners of war. This must be done by a court of law... It is not for Rumsfeld to make this determination," as William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, explained to Al-Ahram Weekly.
A court, indeed, could well decide that some of the captives are not POWs; what is important here, however, is that only a court has the authority to decide. Law professor Cherif Bassiouni, former chairman of the UN Commission to Investigate International Humanitarian Law Violations in the former Yugoslavia, told the Weekly that because Al-Qa'eda fighters are not a regular militia, but members of an organisation whose goals are to commit crimes against civilians and protected targets, they "do not fall within the category of lawful combatants entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Instead, they can be tried for their criminal violations." Bassiouni cautioned, however, that "it would have to be determined that those persons seized in Afghanistan can be held responsible under a broad conspiracy theory for crimes committed in the US or against US personnel by other members of the group."
Al-Qa'eda and Taliban prisoners at Camp X-Ray, where they are being held, at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld visited the base Sunday (photos: AP)
In the case of the Al-Qa'eda fighters, Bassiouni explained, "the US can exercise criminal jurisdiction in accordance with federal criminal law, or in accordance with the laws of New York and the District of Columbia, where the 9/11 crimes occurred." According to the Guardian of 22 January, however, it can avoid exercising such jurisdiction as long as the prisoners never touch US soil (and Guantanamo is not considered part of the US, which leases it from Cuba for a nominal fee of $4,000 a year; Cuba refuses to collect the rent). So while thus far refusing to recognise the detainees explicitly as prisoners of war, the US has also managed to avoid granting them the rights guaranteed criminals under the American constitution, such as presumption of innocence and a trial by jury. Washington, in fact, has indicated that the prisoners may be tried by military tribunal; their sentences could include the death penalty.
"The US as a rule does not share the same view of international law as its European allies, let alone the rest of the world," Schabas noted. "This is a curious situation, because no country has a greater interest in preserving the integrity of the prisoner of war convention. It is the US that has needed to invoke this convention most often over the past few decades," he continued: "in Vietnam in the 1970s, in the Gulf War in 1991 and in Yugoslavia in 1999."
While the lawyers and human rights activists quibble over these points, the men at Guantanamo Bay are undergoing interrogation, without the benefit of legal counsel. And criticism of US measures, when it comes, is primarily concerned not with the prisoners' treatment, but with the impact that treatment will have on the West and its civilised image.
At one end of the spectrum are the cheerleaders who believe the US's policy is almost saintly. Michael Long, director of the White House Writers' Group, provides a coarse illustration, which at least has the advantage of being explicit. In an article titled "A Lesson in Americanism: Model for the World," he writes: "What amazes the world just now is that Americans care so much for the dignity and human rights of these men, even as they plot in their wire cages ways to kill our soldiers; even as they say prayers of thanks for the death of more than 3,000 Americans on September 11."
And while Amnesty International, in a statement issued on 22 January, noted: "Keeping prisoners incommunicado, sensory deprivation, the use of unnecessary restraint and the humiliation of people through tactics such as shaving them are all classic techniques employed to break the spirit of individuals ahead of interrogation," Long protested: "We respect and provide for the most basic needs of these men. Not only that, we are also respecting their culture and religion. Our Taliban prisoners receive two towels, one for bathing and one for use in prayers. They receive three culturally appropriate meals each day. They have daily opportunities to shower, exercise and receive medical attention. And they are not generally photographed because, of all things, it is considered embarrassing to some of them."
At the other end are those who worry that disregarding the Geneva Convention could have the unpleasant side effect of violating Western sensibilities, and tainting the West's reputation. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has said: "Changing our values and our way of life would be terrorism's first victory." The Netherlands, coaxing Washington to recognise the detainees as prisoners of war, adds: "In the fight, we need to uphold our norms and values." In other words, the captives -- who, it must be said again, are proven guilty of no other crime than fighting US forces on Afghan soil -- must not degrade their jailers. That, it seems, is as far as the debate goes, at least in the mainstream media and at policy-making levels.
Even Jamie Fellner, director of the US programme for Human Rights Watch, in an op-ed piece published in Newsday on 16 January and tellingly titled "US must take the high road with prisoners of war," recognises that it "may be difficult" for Americans after 11 September "to accept the idea that anyone captured during the fighting in Afghanistan has basic rights that must be respected," but argues that in "fighting terrorism, the United States must show that it operates with a different set of values." Le Monde of 22 January quoted the president of the European Council's parliamentary assembly, Lord David Russel-Johnston, as saying: "We are supposed to be better than the terrorists." A commentary in the French newspaper Libération warned that "beyond the issue of human rights, the credibility of the war against terrorism is at stake," while the Anglican bishop of Birmingham, England, the Right Reverend Mark Santer, advised the British-American alliance that it was risking its "moral credibility in the eyes of the world" and could provoke further terrorism, according to the New York Times of 24 January. "The argument that the Taliban is appalling, therefore it doesn't matter how we treat them, is degrading to our own claim to be upholding the standards of civilisation," he said.
Frantz Fanon pointed out that torture corrupts the torturer, and this dilemma has been on the US government's mind for a while, at least since it began rounding up terrorist suspects in the US and wondering how to extract information they might have. At first, it suggested farming out the unsavoury task of torturing them to countries more accustomed to such brutality -- "our less squeamish allies," as liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter has called them. Other commentators thought a country like France, which had the experience of the Algerian resistance behind it, could be an ideal subcontractor. Such suggestions, coming soon after revelations by General Paul Aussaresses that the French authorities knew all about the vicious torture to which captives in the liberation war were routinely subjected, made the flesh crawl, to say the least; but more stomach-turning still was the hypocrisy of the implication that the CIA was somehow concerned with keeping its hands clean. Throwing trade union organisers out of planes must have been Pinochet's idea.
In the 5 November issue of Newsweek, Alter threw off all restraint and urged that the US follow the example of Israel in its treatment of Palestinian prisoners, writing: "In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history." Alter, perhaps unsurprisingly, received no flood of outraged reaction at the time; indeed, he himself was astonished when he was approached by "people who might be described as being on the left whispering, 'I agree with you.'" Schabas attributes such attitudes partially to the US's own "very repressive system of criminal justice," adding: "Within the US, the idea of harsh and inhumane treatment has a large constituency."
To sum up the argument: torture is too degrading for the Americans to carry out, but fine as long as they really need the information, and especially if someone else is doing the beating and electrocution. Besides, that's what these people are used to anyway. Discussing various torture options in the same Newsweek article mentioned above, Alter referred to "painful Islamic justice, which has the added benefit of greater acceptance among Muslims." And while he concluded that "we can't legalize physical torture," because "it's contrary to American values," he suggested in a euphemism as crude in form as it was horrifying in content that "we... keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism."
Nor is this attitude limited to government talking heads or pundits like Alter. In the Weekly's letters to the editor section last week, Margaret Doocey opined that anyone who agreed to be part of a culture "that beheads homosexuals" -- presumably meaning Islam -- had no business advocating the universal principles embodied in the Geneva Convention, or calling for the application of those principles. Just how one "agrees to be part of a culture" is debatable; but no matter. This interesting logic may be at the root of many American (and to a lesser extent European) perceptions of Arabs and Muslims as proselytising fanatics intent on global murder, mayhem and genital mutilation. In the case of the prison camps, at any rate, the Americans go one better, suggesting that shelter and three meals a day are far better than anything the prisoners had back home. On the Fox news channel, one analyst remarked the detainees were "living it up compared to living in caves in Afghanistan."
"Does the US apply international law selectively? The answer is yes," Bassiouni told the Weekly. "It has done so in this case as well as many others, and it doesn't seem to bother this government, Congress, or most people in the US. An important reason for that may be the strong pro-administration media, which do not highlight this selectivity and the double standards applied by this as well as previous administrations... There is, in fact, little difference between the results on freedom of the press of conditions that presently exist in the US, and the restrictions on freedom of the press in undemocratic countries," he added.
And the prisoners have already been condemned, in a way -- not to death by a military tribunal, but to subhuman status. General Richard B Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describes them as "people that would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down." Schabas, of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, argues that "the treatment of the prisoners is driven by a desire to dehumanise them. The US leaders want to portray the Taliban as 'sub-humans,' to be treated like animals."
In this context, the point of Camp X- Ray is to afford two levels of very limited transparency: on one hand, to allow total observation of the prisoners at all times; on the other, to show the world what a good sport America is -- within parameters strictly controlled by the military, of course. What other purpose can it have? At most, it will hold 2,000 men. Does the US really hope to extract information from them? Here we return to the vexed problem of how to make them speak. Torture? Perhaps by now liberal qualms have been transcended, and perhaps such distasteful activities grow more palatable with practice.
Another point that must be addressed is the prisoners' ultimate fate. Schabas points out: "The Geneva Convention says that POWs are to be released and repatriated when the hostilities are over. This raises an interesting question, because of the US view that this is some mysterious war against terrorism likely to take decades or perhaps forever." The war in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is over; the POWs must therefore be released. If the US wishes to charge them for crimes over which it enjoys jurisdiction, he told the Weekly, "it must charge the prisoners promptly and see that legal proceedings begin without delay."
Bassiouni argues optimistically that when the inhumane treatment of the POWs -- but, more importantly, the damage a million tons of bombs have done in Afghanistan -- are made known to the US public, "there will be a strong negative reaction." For the time being, however, the US is gearing up for the coming phase; and 61 per cent of respondents to a 25 January CNN Internet poll (1,009 out of a total of 1,658 votes) say Iraq should be the next battlefield in the war on terror.
Recommend this page© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time