Geneva should save people, not just save face

By Emily Alpert

The Geneva Conventions do not protect you from torture, they protect the feds from having to face up to it.

At least, that’s what the Department of Defense would have you believe. In a convenient sleight of hand, the DOD argued this past week that releasing torture photos from Abu Ghraib—the infamous “second round” shots of rapes and beatings that turned senators’ stomachs last spring—would violate the Geneva Conventions, by infringing on victims’ personal privacy. The DOD has suddenly rediscovered the “quaint” Conventions upon being requested by those pesky legalists, the ACLU, to release the photographs in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

This, of course, follows a smattering of Bush Administration decisions aimed at limiting the Geneva Conventions. That the Conventions don’t generally apply in Afghanistan, nor to over 300 foreign fighters detained in Iraq, and that “there is no legal obligation…on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment with respect to aliens overseas,” in the words of the great humanitarian Alberto Gonzales. Revised Army detention rules still prioritize “military necessity” over the humane treatment of so-called “enemy combatants,” and Lieutenant Sanchez recently authorized the use of military dogs while interrogating Iraqi detainees “to exploit Arab fears.” In other words, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply—until you’re seeking to cover your tracks.

If privacy were the DOD’s chief concern, the ACLU argues, why can’t the photos be released minus identifying details? The first set of photos, widely broadcast and printed in The Washington Post, blurred victims’ faces, dodging the issue of victim privacy. Shoring up its case, the DOD contends that releasing the photos might “deprive a person of a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.” This might be a valid claim, if criminal prosecutions were proceeding. Instead, as Human Rights First reports, most officials linked to the atrocities haven’t been prosecuted, and those few who have been aren’t feeling the heat: Brigadier General Karpinski, commander of detention operations at Abu Ghraib, was dismissed with a written reprimand, while Marine Major Clarke Paulus, convicted in connection with a strangulation death, didn’t serve a day of jail time. Others have even been promoted: Sanchez himself was appointed to lead the Army’s Fifth Corps in Europe. It’s hard to take the DOD’s objection seriously while torture prosecutions remain an afterthought, if they’re thought of at all.

But why, a year after the torture scandal broke, should we care? Why dredge up the most grotesque of the Abu Ghraib photos? Because torture, in all likelihood, is still happening in Iraq—and in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. According to Pentagon investigators, the administration’s dismissive attitude towards the Geneva Conventions, combined with a lack of consistent standards when interrogating detainees, was a factor in the abuse at Abu Ghraib. Today, “there remain at least three different sets of still ambiguous interrogation guidelines for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay,” reads a Human Rights First memo on the subject. The Pentagon also concluded that prison crowding contributed to the incidence of torture: The detainee population has doubled in the past five months, and is currently at the same level as when the documented abuses.

Forty-five detainees have died in custody since Rumsfeld was informed of the Abu Ghraib tortures. In light of the known abuses in Iraq, a healthy skepticism—even cynicism—is in order, and that’s why the government will not let the most sordid shots of Abu Ghraib come to light; not out of remorse for the sins of the past, but for the shame of the sins of the present.