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Wednesday, 09 August 2006 07:21

Bush is Trying to Scrap the War Crimes Act So He Can Violate the Geneva Conventions Legally from Now On

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George Bush's stubborn lawyer cronies are at it again, according to a story today in the Washington Post. Instead of complying with the Supreme Court's simple insistence that Bush exercise even a basic degree of human decency and follow the laws he swore to uphold, the Bush Administration has a different solution: just change the law.

The controversy is over the War Crimes Act of 1996, which made illegal any "grave" breach of the Geneva Conventions. Bush's proposed changes limit the scope of punishable crimes to torture, murder, and rape, but declares open season on "humiliating" and "degrading" treatment of prisoners, including "outrages upon personal dignity".

Keep in mind that all of this has been going on for years despite the Act, which has never led to a single prosecution. If the changes go through, one can only imagine how much worse things will inevitably get. According to one legal expert, the "entire family of techniques" used in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib would still be perfectly legal under the proposed changes. Most disturbingly, the exemptions would apply directly (but not exclusively) to politicians, which gives top officials even broader discretion over what to allow interrogators to get away with.

Since the Justice Department has never invoked the law anyway, all this will really accomplish is further infuriation of not only Arabs but also alienation from most of our allies, who tend to be far more progressive on such things. More significantly, it could well drive our opponents on the battlefield to fight to the death rather than surrender to a potential lifetime of inhumane punishment. Remember that the Nazis were all too glad to surrender to Americans rather than face Soviet prisons, and many Iraqis even surrendered to news crews in the 1991 Gulf War. Why? Because they knew they would be treated reasonably as POWs. More widespread prisoner abuse will very directly put our troops in more danger and cost more lives as insurgents get more desperate to avoid capture. They might also be more be more ruthless if they should happen to capture one of us.

Part of the debate stems from the Geneva Conventions' broad and ambiguous provisions, such as what exactly is considered impermissibly "humiliating." There is certainly plenty of overlap with what could reasonably be called "torture." But that's where a moral compass comes in handy, which is a device sorely lacking in Bush's arsenal. The proposed amendments ultimately seek to decrease - not expand or even clarify - the War Crime Act's scope.

Last week at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said, "I mean, what is degrading in one society may not be degrading in another, or may be degrading in one religion, not in another religion." Part of what we consider decency is respect for the views of others. We can tolerate Hindus not eating beef or Orthodox Jews not working during the Sabbath without doing it ourselves. We know full well what deeply offends Muslims, and it's exactly what Bush is trying to allow more of. Besides, much of the most egregious abuses we have seen would be humiliating to anyone.

The Geneva Conventions were implemented for good reason, and as long as we are signatories we should follow them.