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Geneva at 60

[From the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Yanker Poster Collection]

Wednesday (August 12th) marked the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Scott Horton had a piece in The Guardian to mark the occasion. We needn’t review all the ways in which the Bush-Cheney administration made a mockery of the Conventions, though Horton touches on this. Let’s just keep in mind that the Obama administration still has much work to do to demonstrates that the US abides by them. Horton:

Even as Gitmo winds down, the US continues to operate large-scale detention facilities in Iraq, and it is actually ramping up its prison capacity in Afghanistan. While the conditions in those facilities have certainly improved since 2004, the long-term “security” detentions in these facilities cannot be squared with international law. The US should be doing what Geneva and other international law instruments expect – its foreign prisons must conform with the law of the host country, and prisoners held in them must have the rights that local laws and international agreements, including the Geneva conventions, guarantee them.

The Bush administration’s attempted coup de grace to international humanitarian law came when former state department lawyer John Bellinger argued that the entirety of the convention against torture did not apply in wartime. As Condoleezza Rice’s lawyer on the national security council, Bellinger played a role in the authorisation of waterboarding, so he clearly has a personal stake in the issue. He argued that the laws of armed conflict as lex specialis simply displaced human rights law, including the prohibition on torture. Obama has yet to discard this view, which is as essential a part of the Bush torture edifice as the notorious memoranda of justice department lawyers John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury.

On the 60th anniversary of the rebirth of the Geneva conventions, there are some easy steps that President Obama could take to demonstrate that his administration takes its obligations under the conventions seriously. He could submit the two additional protocols to the Senate for ratification.

He could legalise his defence department’s extraordinary detentions system. Or he could just give meaning to his repudiation of torture by ending force-feeding at Guantánamo and accepting that the ban on torture applies even in wartime. Any of these steps would at this point be more welcome that his wonderful – but increasingly unconvincing rhetoric. The Bush team dealt the Geneva conventions a grave wound. Healing that wound requires actions that give meaning to the Obama administration’s words.

Categories: Torture
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