The eye of the beholder |

The eye of the beholder

Vail CO, ColoradoThe treatment of prisoners of war has been a point of contention among combatants for centuries. But it was the sensationalized news stories about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo that raised the consciousness of many Americans regarding the matter.Unfortunately, this issue has been politicized beyond recognition. Never mind the monumental differences bet-ween the systemic abuses at Abu Ghraib and the alleged torture at Guant-anamo. In the eyes of the misinformed, America is guilty of violating international law, rendering us the moral equivalent of Muslim fundamentalists who chop off heads in the name of Allah.Every aspect of the broader war on terror has a political component, and this is no different. But instead of further politicization, I thought it might be beneficial to examine this issue from a historical perspective. In 1859, Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, stumbled onto the Battle of Solferino, Italy, where 40,000 men lay dead or wounded. Injured soldiers were strewn across the battlefield among the vermin, filth and rotting bodies. After witnessing the appalling carnage, Dunant resolved to do something about it, and in 1864 brought together lawyers, government officials and prominent citizens from across Europe and convened the “Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.” The convention resulted in a treaty signed in Geneva, Switzerland, that opposed the mistreatment of prisoners and marked the first Geneva Convention on the humane treatment of prisoners of war.Mean-while, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, there was a monumental transformation in the Union war effort against the Confederacy. President Abraham Lincoln had just allowed blacks to fight in the Union Army.To counter this, the Confederacy passed an ordinance dictating that if captured, a free black Union soldier was “subject to losing his freedom, or his death.” In essence, the Confederate ordinance stated that if captured on the battlefield, “Negroes” could be sold into slavery. In response, Lincoln issued an order of retaliation, making it clear that he would not tolerate such a condition. The order read in part, “For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor.” Thusly, the first modernday attempts to codify treatment of prisoners of war were made. In 1906, the Second Geneva Convention extended compassionate treatment to combatants at sea. In 1929, the Third Geneva Convention broadened the requirements to include treating prisoners respectfully, supplying information about the POWs’ status to their nations of origin and permitting visits from neutral representatives.Then World War II began. The imperial Japanese army routinely beheaded American, Chinese and Filipino prisoners. For those who did live, treatment was horrific. Fully one-third of the Americans captured by the Japanese died in captivity. Prisoners at Japan’s experimental unit 731 underwent transfusions with horse blood to see how long they would live. Many underwent vivisections, while others were injected with various diseases and biological agents. Meanwhile, German soldiers captured by the Red Army at Stalingrad had but a 3 percent survival rate.In the aftermath of such horrors, the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) declared that POWs must receive adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical treatment, access to mail, be allowed to worship and could not be used as human shields, forced into dangerous work or subjected to medical experimentation.Despite the 1949 convention, outrages continued in such places as Korea and Vietnam, where American servicemen underwent merciless degradation and extreme forms of torture. However, by the latter part of the 20th century, warfare had “evolved” and the old model of war involving state armies meeting on a battlefield became a rarity. To accommodate this new approach to warfare, two amendments were added to the conventions. The first governed “wars of self-determination,” and the second, “civil wars.” In addition, under the 1977 protocols, combatants were obliged to “distinguish themselves from civilians and carry weapons openly.” However, in contradiction of its own parameters, the protocols also stated that failure to do so did not annul the protections granted by the protocols. In essence, even if combatants did not “distinguish themselves from civilians” they would still receive “protections equivalent in all respects” to those accorded POWs. Additionally, the 1977 amendments stated that a combatant can be deemed a POW if fighting “against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes” – a claim now made by every terrorist organization in the world.The 1977 protocols have been ratified by about 80 percent of U.N. member nations, but only to varying degrees. The lack of clarity and contradictions within those amendments are likely part of the reason. Congress, during the Carter administration, chose not to ratify those protocols 30 years ago, which is one reason the current administration uses the term “unlawful combatants” to this day.So why has this topic become so politicized? To answer that question we must first understand that “international law” is dissimilar from domestic law inasmuch as its primary sources of authority are treaties, custom and the general principles of law. But when taken as a whole, international law is not underpinned by any particular body of law as the U.S. criminal justice system is, much less a single document such as the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, when deciding upon or interpreting international law, it becomes the responsibility of individual nation to do so. Unsurprisingly, there is rarely agreement in cases of dispute, including the definition and adherence to the Geneva Conventions, which is precisely why this issue becomes so politicized.Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, can be reached at

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