Friday, May 14, 2004

Transparency vs. the Geneva Conventions?

It’s a sad day—or a day when we should think about rewriting international humantarian law—when Donald Rumsfeld is the first person to point out publicly what constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

I hate to admit this, but Rummy is consistent on at least one point in this whole nasty scandal surrounding the pictures of Iraqi photos: for the U.S. government to show them publicly would be a violation. Last year, that was the U.S. complaint against video footage of Iraqi interrogation of GIs who’d been taken prisoner---although at least these guys had their clothes on.

According to a story from AP published in the Boston Globe, the International Committee of the Red Cross agrees:

GENEVA (AP) The international Red Cross agreed Thursday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the Geneva Conventions on warfare forbid the U.S. government from distributing photographs showing Iraqi detainees being humiliated or abused.

"He has a good point," said Antonella Notari, spokeswoman of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "The dignity of the people who are detained has to be respected at all times."

The conventions, which spell out the internationally agreed rules on the treatment of detainees during warfare, ban exposing prisoners of war to "public curiosity."
I started musing about this earlier today, before I even realized that Rumsfeld had mentioned this, and wondered why the media and human rights groups have not picked up on this angle. The answer is probably because it was the circulation of these photos—and perhaps only that—which has led to increased scrutiny, and hopefully policy changes, over prisoner interrogation techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Geneva Conventions, of course, only apply to the “parties to a conflict”, so the media cannot violate them, and so far I'm not sure the U.S. has officially released any photos. But if the intent of these norms is that it is unlawful to humiliate people under your control, then why is no one responsible for the continued humiliation of these prisoners throughout the world through continued proliferation of these images?

Do the principles of transparency and accountability trump the Geneva Conventions here?

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