Recent reports that U.S. intelligence operatives and military police are torturing captured al Qaeda and Taliban suspects are but the latest evidence of the United States' disgraceful handling of detainees in its war on terrorism. For the past year we have known that U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan turned over surrendered combatants to their local allies, who reportedly murdered hundreds of them in captivity. Thousands of others who lay down their weapons were crammed into freezing, filthy, dilapidated cells at Shebergan prison. The United States detains al Qaeda and Taliban captives indefinitely without charge or trial, some imprisoned in secret locations in foreign countries where security services that are known to use torture conduct interrogations on our behalf. These immoral and illegal practices are extremely costly to U.S. interests and ought to be stopped immediately.
While the United States denies legal prisoner-of-war status to captured and surrendered Taliban and al Qaeda combatants, the administration has repeatedly stated that it nonetheless affords humanitarian law protections to detainees. The Washington Post's report of Dec. 26 does not support that assertion. If true, the allegations of beatings, painful bindings, contorted positions, sleep deprivation and piercing noises inflicted on captured enemy combatants by U.S. military police, CIA and Special Forces interrogators would represent clear violations of the Geneva Convention's Article 17, which states: "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind."
Several Bush administration officials interviewed for The Post's report justify such tactics as legitimate ways of gaining vital information about terrorist networks. More likely, information accrued by inflicting humiliation and suffering is worthless: Terrified, disoriented and pain-maddened prisoners will say anything to stop their torment. But even if the beatings and cruelties did yield intelligence rewards, the use of such tactics would cost the United States much more than it could possibly gain.
The first casualty is the damage it inflicts on international humanitarian norms. The Geneva Conventions are one of the finest achievements of the 20th century. They were painstakingly developed by military experts not to outlaw war but to minimize gross cruelty and unnecessary suffering during armed conflict. While atrocities continue to abound in warfare, humanitarian law norms have nonetheless taken hold among fighting forces. The torture or execution of a fallen or captive enemy fighter is universally understood to be a war crime.
But perhaps not by the Bush administration, whose war on terrorism has become a war on humanitarian law as well. Its cavalier approach to international law erodes the Geneva Conventions' prestige and authority in ways that will be suffered by those most vulnerable in warfare -- civilians and surrendered combatants -- for decades to come. If the most powerful military in the world finds it expeditious to deny access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is the international guarantor of POWs' health and safety, then protection for captured combatants everywhere in the world is compromised. If the world's superpower ignores the murder of hundreds of captured prisoners by our local allies, or the life-threatening squalor in which thousands are imprisoned, where might we expect that prisoners will be afforded the humane conditions that international law requires?
The second casualty of such practices is U.S. prestige and leadership internationally. If the Bush administration does not immediately investigate these practices, stop them and prosecute those involved, it invites the revulsion of the entire world and exacerbates the fury of those who wish our country ill. Moreover, the practices that U.S. interrogators and their allies engage in are those our government has inveighed against in many countries. Few will listen now.
The third cost is the grave risk such disregard for prisoners invites for U.S. military personnel. If enemy powers adopt these practices, we may expect that American prisoners of war will be held in secret locations, beaten, starved and disoriented. We can expect that hundreds will, like those combatants in Afghanistan, be killed after surrender, and thousands packed into a prison where death from exposure and dysentery are common.
Of course, U.S. compliance with Geneva Convention standards does not ensure reciprocity by grossly abusive, irregular fighters such as al Qaeda terrorists. But it does give the United States the moral and political platform to engage other governments in denouncing abuses against imprisoned Americans.
Treating captured combatants humanely should not be a difficult task for the United States when it goes to war; it is the bare minimum. To date, the Bush administration has flunked this rudimentary test of military professionalism, and in so doing degraded itself, along with the international law norms it flagrantly violates.
The writer is U.S. policy director of Physicians for Human Rights.