Geneva May Not Apply to Captured Terrorists; But Our Moral Code Does
It is not often that I disagree with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, but today is one of those days. WSJ.com Opinion Journal has published an editorial called, "The Savages, A Barbaric Enemy Disqualified From the Geneva Conventions." The editorial suggests that heinous acts of the Iraqi insurgents, such as the recent torture murder of two U.S. soldiers, disqualifies captured insurgents from treatment in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The unsigned staff editorial states, "The Convention extends those privileges to combatants who abide by the laws it sets for war, including the treatment of prisoners."
That statement is legally correct. However, it does not describe how the United States has historically observed the Geneva Conventions. For example, Japan generally disregarded the Geneva Convention in its treatment of Allied prisoners of war and civilians, imposing slave labor, and engaging in torture and murder on a large-scale basis. Nonetheless, Japanese prisoners of war were generally treated humanely and in accordance with the dictates of the Conventions. (Of course, there are always exceptions, and the test in the case of abuses is whether the military authority whose soldiers have violated the rules of war tries and punishes the abusers. In Iraq, the U.S. armed forces have performed in an exemplary manner in investigating alleged crimes and prosecuting accused soldiers, as we have painfully witnessed.) (Historical Note: The current Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War did not come into effect until October 1950, after the conclusion of World War II, but both Japan and Germany were parties to the predecessor treaties.)
The editorial also states, "Combatants who fail to obey those laws--by not wearing distinctive military insignia or targeting civilians--are not entitled to its privileges." Again, a legally correct statement, but one that must be qualified with a reality check. In World War II, both the United States and Great Britain, following the earlier example of Germany, engaged in large scale strategic bombing of civilian targets, including cities. Although justified at the time as striking at military targets, that conclusion cannot be sustained by a close examination of the facts. The fire bombing of Dresden, generally conceded to have been bereft of military targets, is just one example. The strategic bombing of Japanese cities was conceived and intended to weaken the morale of the civilian population, not to destroy any military targets.
Nonetheless, the overall compliance by the United States and Great Britain to the Geneva Conventions during World War II was far superior to that of their enemies, and I hope that the editors of the Wall Street Journal would not argue that the cited exceptions of targeting civilian populations for aerial bombing somehow justifed inhumane treatment of U.S. and British prisoners by Japan and Germany (as the Japanese themselves did argue).
I strongly oppose the calls to close the Guantanamo Prison. Indeed, the proponents of closing Gitmo object to it precisely because we are treating the prisoners there as enemy combatants captured on the battlefield, even though they are not legally entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Under the Geneva Conventions, captured combatants are not entitled to trials or legal counsel on the issue of the correctness of their capture and captivity, and they are not entitled to release until the conflict has ended.
Ironically, even though the Conventions do not strictly apply to enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan or Iraq, it is highly likely that at no time in the history of the Geneva Conventions has any prison camp has been run more humanely and more in accordance with the requirements of the Geneva Conventions than at Gitmo. Despite the savagery of our enemies, that should continue.