Europeans fault U.S. as arrogant on detainees
Americans are seen 'making up rules' on Taliban in Cuba
New York Times Service
Thursday, January 24, 2002
BERLIN -- The fury in Europe over the treatment of the Taliban prisoners in Cuba stems from what appears to be another example of the United States bending international law to suit its own purposes, European analysts and diplomats said Wednesday.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that it was holding off sending more Al Qaeda and Taliban figures to Cuba for security reasons.
But the decision by the Pentagon to keep those detainees already in Cuba out of the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, and not to classify them as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention has troubled America's closest allies, making it look as if the United States is "making up the rules as it goes along," said a West European ambassador here.
"This is international law à la carte, like multilateralism à la carte," the ambassador said. "It annoys your allies in the war against terrorism, and it creates problems for our Muslim allies, too. It puts at stake the moral credibility of the war against terrorism."
In the last few days, the German and Dutch governments and the European Union itself have openly criticized the U.S. treatment of the 158 captured Taliban fighters, spurred by a Pentagon photograph of bound, shackled prisoners, their heads and eyes covered, kneeling before American soldiers.
These officials, like Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany and the European Union security chief, Javier Solana, say that the Geneva Convention must be applied to these prisoners, who would not be obligated to agree to interrogations. There has also been criticism about the physical treatment of the prisoners from the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, and such groups as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Frontiers.
The public-relations fiasco of the photographs, republished around the world, caused the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to remonstrate with Washington more than a week ago - the first open criticism of the Bush administration by the British since Sept. 11. Mr. Straw is reliably said to have been reassured by the Americans about the treatment of the prisoners, but he was appalled by the damage the photographs and the issue itself could do to the coalition against terrorism.
Mr. Straw's concerns have proved to be prescient, with a cascade of criticism continuing to this day, prompting the U.S. defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to devote an hourlong news conference to the subject Tuesday.
Mr. Rumsfeld called the publication of the photos "probably unfortunate," said that they had captured just a moment in time and described the prisoners, who he called extremely dangerous, as being held under humane conditions "consistent with the Geneva Convention." He said they had been visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But the European concerns go beyond the specifics of the prisoners' treatment, which has been criticized by human rights groups like Amnesty International.
"A lot of the European reaction to Guantanamo is not because people care about the feelings of the prisoners there," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a London-based research institute. "It's touched a neuralgic point, which is the European concern that America doesn't believe in international law, doesn't believe in submitting itself to rules, organizations or norms that limit its freedom of action - whether the question is the Kyoto agreement, the International Criminal Court or even, apparently, the Geneva Convention, which many experts outside the United States believe has been breached."
The Bush administration has withdrawn from the Kyoto Accord on the environment, arguing that it will not solve the problem of greenhouse gases, but it has not produced an alternative. And Washington has said it will not participate in any International Criminal Court set up by the United Nations because American officials and soldiers could be tried there.
These trans-Atlantic arguments about the nature of multilateralism and international obligation were vivid before Sept. 11, but were repressed since then. But the war has brought them forward in a new way, Mr. Grant agreed.
European voters and governments are asking, "How can we argue the case that the moral thing to do is to fight terrorism if we're not prepared to apply basic human rights and international law to the detainees?" Mr. Grant said.
Another senior European diplomat said that the war against terrorism was fundamentally a defense of civilized values. "A part of civilization versus terrorism is the defense of international law and values to the highest degree," he said. "The problem with these photos and the American contention that these are not really prisoners of war is that the argument is untenable. It's hard to explain this to our own citizens, let alone to our Muslim allies. Guantanamo seems to many to exemplify the pick-and-choose American approach to international law."
That argument was echoed by Jacques Amalric in the French newspaper Liberation, who wrote: "Hostile to all international law as soon as it concerns themselves directly, the United States has assumed the role of a lone crusader for justice after an attack in which large numbers of the victims were not even American.
Furthermore, and more importantly, the prisoners, already presumed guilty, have been denied the protection of the judicial guarantees afforded by the American institutional system.
"Certainly, nothing will be the same after September 11, but should this be true of justice?" he asked. "Beyond the issue of human rights, the credibility of the war against terrorism is at stake."
Bruno Frappat, writing in the Catholic newspaper La Croix, said that the ideal of civilization that gave the American war against terror its moral force was at stake in the way America's prisoners are treated. While the prisoners will hardly be "pampered," Mr. Frappat was sure that the U.S. Army "will grant them decent material conditions."
The real question, he said, are their judicial treatment and their rights. "Who will judge them and in what name?" he asked.
On Wednesday, the Bishop of Birmingham, England, the Right Reverend Mark Santer, said the British-American alliance against terrorism was risking its "moral credibility in the eyes of the world" and could be risking further terrorism based on the perception of continued injustice.
"It is not edifying that the strongest country, America, has set itself up as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner of its case," Bishop Santer said.
For their part, British politicians reacted angrily to Mr. Rumsfeld's attack on them for criticizing Guantanamo from "a comfortable distance."
"We've supported the United States," said Ann Clwyd, a legislator from the governing Labor Party. "It seems rather crass to dismiss legitimate concerns out of hand. We don't want to be insulted by Donald Rumsfeld."
Tilman Zuelch, president of the Society for Threatened People, based in Goettingen, with offices in five other European countries, said: "If you look at the American policies toward the United Nations, toward the International Court, people feel there aren't the same standards for Americans and others. People in the human rights field see much progress in expanding the reach of international law, but then they see that America is not supporting such efforts."
America's reputation for generosity is at stake, said Vittorio Zucconi in Corriere della Sera. "It is from the way these men will be treated, from the justice they will receive, that America - and we as allies - will find out if the military and technological superiority showed in the battlefield can turn into juridical and moral superiority," he wrote.
If Taliban prisoners return home, as American prisoners of war did after World War II, with memories of humane and just treatment, he said, "another phase of this war against terror will be achieved."
Copyright (c) 2001 The International Herald Tribune