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Gitmo Captives Not POWs, Just Prisoners By: Salim Mansur
Toronto Sun | Monday, November 20, 2006

The reporting from the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facility by Peter Worthington confirms what most of us suspected -- that criticisms levelled against the handling of al-Qaida detainees are the lib-left effort to discredit the Bush administration's war against radical Islamists and their terrorism.

Those being held at Guantanamo Bay are not regular prisoners of war who would automatically be protected by regulations provided under the Geneva Convention now ratified by 194 member countries of the United Nations.

The convention represents the collective effort of states to maintain some basic humanitarian concerns even in the midst of war's brutalities, and bring countries to abide by the laws and customs of war.

It describes whom are to be considered prisoners of war when taken captive by an enemy power.

But the basic problem with the Guantanamo detainees is they are disowned by their native countries for being terrorists, or for having been associated with organizations such as al-Qaida engaged in preaching politics of violence against states (non-Muslim or Muslim) seen as enemies of their radical Islamist ideology.

These detainees do not fit any category of prisoners of war as defined by the Geneva Convention which does not anticipate the dilemmas of war resulting from hostilities precipitated by non-state entities such as al-Qaida.

The Bush administration needed to decide how to describe captives from the war against radical Islamist terror, and it did by labelling them "unlawful combatants."


The term "unlawful combatants" was set forth in a U.S. statute to "facilitate bringing to justice terrorists and other unlawful enemy combatants through full and fair trials by military commissions, and for other purposes."

The labelling of Guantanamo detainees as "unlawful combatants" does not deny them reasonable and fair treatment as captives of war deserving of the Geneva Convention that sets out the requirements of prisoners for meeting their "religious, intellectual and physical activities."

The convention states: "Prisoners of war shall enjoy complete latitude in the exercise of their religious duties, including attendance at the service of their faith, on condition that they comply with the disciplinary routine prescribed by the military authorities."

As Worthington reports, detainees have not been denied the basic provisions of the convention. Since all detainees except for one are Muslim, meeting the requirements of the convention would mean extending them the right to prayers, fasting, and making available the Koran and food that meets their dietary needs provided "they comply with the disciplinary routine prescribed by the military authorities."

It was a Newsweek story from the summer of 2005 of a copy of the Koran being flushed down the toilet by guards at Guantanamo that inflamed a segment of public opinion against the Bush administration's treatment of the detainees. The Newsweek story was false, but the damage was done and the story took a life of its own purportedly showing the disregard of Americans for the detainees and their faith.

There has been no indication by fair observers of mistreatment of Guantanamo detainees who are mostly, as Worthington writes about them, of a ruthless bent of mind ready to twist any humane treatment meted out to them as an indication of decadent weakness of the power holding them, while twisting any lawful effort to question them as subjecting them to inhumane treatment prohibited by the Geneva Convention.


What critics of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility refuse to acknowledge is countries from where the detainees originate are not willing to take them back and hold them in prisons under some agreed formula, nor can these detainees be simply allowed to go free into society given their record of unforgiving indiscriminate violence.

Five years following 9/11 the UN has failed to agree upon any definition of terrorism and how to meet its challenges.

This lack of agreement suggests there cannot be any changes brought to the Geneva Convention to incorporate some version of "unlawful combatants" to describe captives disowned by their native countries.

In these circumstances the Guantanamo Bay detention facility remains the only model of holding captives of a new kind of war who should not be labelled prisoners of war as described by the convention.

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Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

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