WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US administration announced that it will respect the rights of “war on terror” detainees, but urged the US Congress to pass legislation making it possible to prosecute Al-Qaeda operatives and other presumed terrorists at the US-run Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.
In a policy reversal, the Pentagon on Tuesday released a memo directing Defense Department staff and brass to strictly adhere to the Geneva Conventions in handling foreign detainees.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England instructed US military leadership in the memo “to promptly review all relevant directives, regulations, policies, practices and procedures under your purview to ensure that they comply with the standards of Common Article Three” of the Geneva Conventions.
“You will ensure that all (Department of Defense) personnel adhere to these standards,” said the July 7 directive.
Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch, said the Pentagon’s decision to apply the Geneva rules to anyone captured on the battlefield “is welcome news for soldiers around the world.”
The policy shift comes after the George W. Bush administration for months had maintained that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to combatant fighting for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terror groups.
But the unexpected change comes as Bush prepares to attend this week’s Group of Eight summer of leading world powers in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where several otherwise staunch US allies take exception to Washington’s treatment of terror suspects.
The change was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling late last month rejecting the Bush administration’s plans to impanel special military tribunals to try the terror suspects. The high court ruled that such panels were a violation of international and domestic law.
The US administration, meanwhile, insisted that it all along has respected the human rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
“It is not really a reversal of policy. Humane treatment has always been the standard, and that is something they followed at Guantanamo,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
Opposition Democrats said the administration’s about-face comes too late to prevent an erosion of US standing in the eyes of its allies and the world.
“In the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush administration political appointees overruled the advice and judgment of professional military lawyers and established a badly flawed detainee and military commission system that was at odds with American values,” said Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the US Senate.
“Nearly five years later, the results are clear: not a single detainee has been tried and brought to justice and the US reputation has been badly tarnished internationally,” Reid said.
Daniel Dell’Orto, principal deputy general counsel at the Department of Defense, said the rules on humane treatement would apply to inmates at Guantanamo and all other US military installations.
But he said it is important “to avoid the absurd result of adopting protections for terrorists that American citizens do not receive in civilian courts.”
At the same hearing, senior Justice Department attorney Steve Bradbury said the high court ruling — seen by some as a major setback for the Bush administration — was actually an opportunity.
“The decision in Hamdan gives the political branches an opportunity to work as one to establish the legitimate authority of the US to rely on miltary commissions to bring the terrorists to justice,” Bradbury said.
The June 29 Supreme Court ruling on the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case faulted the administration for establishing the tribunals without congressional authorization. Snow said Tuesday that would soon be resolved.
“We’re going to work with members of Congress to make sure that the detainees are treated in a manner that’s consistent with their human rights, and also that they’re brought to justice,” Snow said.