Global Policy Forum

The Laws of War

Cincinnati Post
November 15, 2004

In his second term, President Bush has an opportunity to rectify the errors of his first, and one of those was the ad hoc assertion of the right of the president to treat captives in the war on terrorism as he saw fit, without regard to U.S. or international law.

That strategy inflicted terrible damage on the United States' reputation as a bastion of human rights and, moreover, it is starting to fall apart piecemeal under legal challenge. This past week, a federal judge ruled that the military commissions the administration had set up to try the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees were unlawful. The judge ruled that the detainees were probably subject to the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war and, if they are, they must be tried in a regular military court-martial.

The administration says it will appeal, but the legal tide seems to be shifting. The courts have already ruled that the detainees are entitled to challenge their continued detention before a federal judge and are entitled to legal counsel. The administration has insisted that the detainees are illegal enemy combatants, a term of its own devising. The administration used the illegal-combatant status to justify holding an American citizen and a U.S.-born Saudi incommunicado. The Supreme Court slapped that down, saying, in essence, either charge them or release them.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was another international black eye. An investigation concluded that the mistreatment was done by rogue soldiers and reaffirmed that torture is not the policy of the United States. But the graphic pictures and an ill-considered White House memo that seemed to condone torture certainly made it look like it was. This whole contrived legal edifice is crumbling and the Bush administration should get out from under before it collapses altogether.

The White House should reaffirm American adherence to the Geneva Conventions, restate our longstanding rejection of the use of torture and reiterate its confidence in our civilian and military justice systems.

The White House is right in saying that the war on terror is a different kind of war, but it needn't mean abandoning fundamental principles of human rights. A second term is a second chance to get it right.

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