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"Unlawful combatants"?

Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2002 15:44:13 -0500
Subject: "Unlawful combatants"?
From: John Judge

It strikes me that the Bush administration has been very cleverly meshing the concepts of declared war and criminal justice, confusing both so that they can do whatever they like without following the precepts of either. Justice has been made synonymous with military retaliation. The use of military tribunals replaces international law and tribunals. The line between civilian law enforcement and criminal courts and military actions is being eroded seriously.

The latest example is the use of the term "unlawful combatants" regarding the detainees from Afghanistan being held at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba. This clever designation puts them beyond the reach of either criminal legal rights or Geneva accord protections for prisoners of war.

I have contended from the start, and still do, that the events of September 11 were not acts of war but mass murders that should be dealt with before an international tribunal. There is no declared war, only war powers ceded to the President. The administration is claiming that these people are not "prisoners of war" (and rightly so, but for the wrong reason of course) but "unlawful combatants" who can be detained and interrogated.

The Geneva Convention clearly states that prisoners taken in combat must be assumed to be POW's and under the protections unless an independent tribunal is held that would determine a different status for them. Officials claim that they are not POWs because they were not wearing uniforms or fighting on behalf of a nation state. This is disingenous. Many wars happen within nation states, for instance. Many forces fight without uniforms, including the American Revolutionary forces. They are called irregulars, guerillas, or resistance/freedom fighters. If the Soviets captured elements of the Afghan resistance in the 90's would they have been "unlawful combatants" for lack of uniforms?

There is a tradition in war to have disguised combatants dealt with summarily, such as spies or those who steal uniforms (considered a violation of the articles of war). This clever term, "unlawful combatants" makes them both criminals and combatants at the same time, and then provides the excuse to treat them as neither one. They have neither the rights of a POW nor of a criminal under international or US laws. In much the same way that those held for interrogation here in the US have their civil rights violated.

Truth and the Constitution are often the very first victims of war, but we should not be confused by the rhetoric of this administration into accepting the argument only on their terms. Those who took part in the events of September 11 were mass murderers for political purpose and violated international law. Their targets were primarily civilian, though some servicemembers died in the Pentagon crash, and they should be seen as criminals. Those who resisted the US attack on Afghanistan seem to be in a different category. A few fit both, perhaps. As with the use of the term "war lords" to refer to tribal leaders, the US should take a hard look at itself before calling anyone an "unlawful combatant".


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