Washington, 13 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With the exception of the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush says its treatment of suspected terrorists in its custody is a matter of policy.
It calls the prisoners "illegal combatants" -- members of a hostile force that do not follow the Geneva Conventions on warfare. Therefore, it says, they do not enjoy the convention's protections.
Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said that argument might apply, but he said it is only half an argument. He told RFE/RL that the United States is a signatory to other conventions with equal weight.
"You have the Geneva Conventions, which apply in wartime, and then you have a number of other standards, treaties, rules that apply in peacetime. One always applies. And whether your standard is the Geneva Conventions or these other treaties, they're all very clear that you can't hold people incommunicado, [that] you can't hold people in secret," Malinowski said.
Malinowski pointed to the UN Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among others. He said they apply to all people, whether or not they are in custody, and whether or not they are suspected of fighting for an entity that ignores the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch says the practice demeans the United States, which many see as an exemplar of human rights.
Human Rights Watch says the practice demeans the United States, which many see as an exemplar of human rights. Specifically, Malinowski said it shows a kind of hypocrisy by the Bush administration.
Malinowski noted that while campaigning for reelection, Bush has justified his invasion of Iraq by saying he is helping to spread democracy and freedom. But he said the way the Bush administration treats prisoners who are suspected terrorists sends an entirely different message.
"It tells the world that this administration isn't practicing what it preaches," Malinowski said. "The president does appear to be very committed to promoting liberty and the rule of law. It's actually not just a good thing but a vital thing in terms of winning the war on terror. But we're not as credible in encouraging other people to live up to these standards if we're not living up to them ourselves."
Arch Puddington is the director of research at another human rights group, Freedom House. He agreed that isolating prisoners is hypocritical for a country that urges others to respect human rights. But he said the current problem is not unique.
Speaking from New York, Puddington told RFE/RL that every U.S. administration in recent history has been accused of some sort of human rights violation. He said a president should be judged on how quickly he remedies the situation, and the seriousness of the violation itself.
Puddington contrasted the reported practice of keeping prisoners in seclusion with the legal limbo of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the cases of abuse and torture at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison, both of which he called far worse.
"I think you have to look at the magnitude of the hypocrisy," Puddington said. "Abu Ghurayb damaged American credibility globally. This issue of whether we are keeping a rather small group of major terror suspects incommunicado -- that is of a different magnitude. And I think people around the world would probably look at it as being not of the same seriousness."
Puddington said the Bush administration might actually have a sound reason for holding these prisoners in isolation. He noted that the 11 men cited by Human Rights Watch include not just low-level suspects, but also Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the suspected planner of the attacks of 11 September 2001, as well as Abu Zubaydah, who is said to have been a close aide to Osama bin Laden.
If the United States argued for acceptance of its treatment of these prisoners, Puddington said, the human rights community might listen attentively.
"It may be that we discover that the war on terror is going to require, at least to some extent, new policies and new rules of war than those that were devised in the era of traditional warfare," Puddington said.
So far, however, the Bush administration has made no such argument.
Puddington said it is time for the United States to sit down with its allies and its colleagues at the United Nations to determine whether the Geneva Conventions and other treaties need to be revised to meet the needs of a new kind of warfare.
[The full Human Rights Watch report can be found at http://www.hrw.org]