Monday, September 25, 2006

Doesn't Seem Vague to Me

So, over the last month or so, Pres. Bush (and Tony Snow) have been sparring with reporters and Republican Senators over prisoner treatment. The particular impetus for this round is Bush's claim that Common Article III of the Geneva Convention is too "vague" and requires "definition." I honestly didn't pay too much attention to this debate--it seemed to me that if Colin Powell, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham all defied their party's President to say leave the Geneva Convention alone, that's what we should do. I'm just generally in favor of not torturing people. It makes people hate us and doesn't get reliable information.

And now they've struck a compromise that seems, well, a little vague. Bush says it respects his position, his opponents say it respects theirs. So I'm not sure that it does anything except retroactively (unconstitutionally?) exempt interrogators for violating US human rights law (if not the Geneva Convention).

And so, in an attempt to understand this, to see whether Common Article III's provisions against "cruel treatment" and "outrages upon personal dignity" are any vaguer than, say, our own Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment," I went to the Geneva Convention, prepared to wade through page after page of Common Article Three.

But there was no need for that. The entire thing is 272 words long (about 3/5 the length of my portion of this post.) And while it's probably about as vague as the US Constitution, its English is actually of a more recent and therefore more straightforward vintage. If Bush can insist on wanting strict constructionists (i.e., people who stick to the supposedly transparent letter of the Constitution) for the Supreme Court, then surely he himself shouldn't have much trouble being a strict contructionist about the plain language of the Geneva Convention.

And, if he really believes, as he's said over and over in recent speeches starting with his address to the UN, that war in Iraq is part not of a clash between civilizations but a clash for civilization--for democracy, decency, and human rights against Islamist extremism, then probably should pay very close attention to the clause of Article III that prohibits "the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples." If the general worldwide hostility--including from our allies--to Guantanamo, to extraordinary rendition, to secret detention, and to coercive interrogation is any guide of what "civilized peoples" think, maybe we should stop. When struggling for civilization, it helps to uphold the standards of civilization.

Anyway, posted below is the entire text of Common Article III. Decide for yourself whether it's too vague to stand on its own:

Art 3. In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
(2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.
An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.

The Parties to the conflict should further endeavour to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.

The application of the preceding provisions shall not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.


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