24 March 2003

U.S. remembers the law on POWs, belatedly

24 March 2003
The Times of India

U.S. Remembers the Law on PoWs, Belatedly

By Siddharth Varadarajan
Times News Network

New Delhi: For a televised war which began with triumphant and sometimes seemingly staged footage of Iraqi soldiers surrendering and being taken into custody, the images of American soldiers in Iraqi captivity were a shocking and unwelcome intrusion.

Less than eight hours after a U.S. marines spokesman in Qatar dismissed as "Iraqi lies" reports of American soldiers being captured, Al-Jazeera incensed the Pentagon by broadcasting footage of five U.S. prisoners of war in Iraqi custody. U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that Iraq was violating the Geneva Conventions by putting American PoWs on show.

Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention mandates that war prisoners be protected against "insult and public curiosity." "The showing of these pictures is absolutely unacceptable," declared U.S. Lt Gen John Abizaid in Qatar, condemning Al-Jazeera for its PoW broadcast. As if on cue, U.S. television networks refrained from showing the images, and at least one major U.S. daily, the Los Angeles Times, immediately withdrew the images from its website.

This unofficial censorship extended into cyberspace as well. Yellowtimes.org, an anti-war "guerrilla" webpage, posted photographs of the U.S. PoWs only to find its hosting provider shutting down its site for displaying "inappropriate graphic material."

Ironically, most U.S. channels and newspapers had no compunctions running images of Iraqi soldiers and combatants surrendering or being held in captivity.

Prior to Sunday, the last time Rumsfeld used the words "Geneva Convention" was when he declared that prisoners taken by the U.S. in Afghanistan would not be accorded the protection of the Conventions. The suspected al-Qaeda captives, he declared, were "unlawful combatants"; and the U.S. had the right to do with them what it wished. On the day the al-Qaeda prisoners were brought to Guantanamo Bay, Amnesty International declared the U.S. in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Article 5 of the Third Convention declares that if doubts should arise about the precise status of captives, "such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal." No competent tribunal has adjudicated on the matter, said Amnesty.

As for the Iraq war, more problematic than the PoWs issue is the use of heavy firepower by the U.S. in civilian areas. The Fourth Geneva Convention mandates that civilians be protected in times of war but the U.S. has been dropping missiles and cluster bombs in urban areas. Already, some 200 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the U.S. invasion began.

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