US Hypocrisy and the Geneva Conventions

by Kim Petersen

Dissident Voice

March 24, 2003


The hypocrite's crime is that he bears false witness against himself.  What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all vices except this one.

                                           -- Lionel Trilling


The US is waging a war greeted by world opprobrium. This scorn is also very evident at home; the US anti-war demonstrators are intensely mobilized. Despite a hyper-Orwellian control over the media, the system has leaks. The US cannot cower all the foreign media and some of the alternative media inside the US is brazenly defiant. News has reached the home front that US military personnel have been killed and captured. This is sure to be unsettling to Washington. The photos of victims and the bodies of Americans returning home from Vietnam galvanized public sentiment and the anti-war movement. Eventually this brought about a pullout by the US.


In a rather audacious display of hypocrisy US Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld had the gall to proclaim, albeit rightly so, that the broadcasting of pictures of US POWs was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. (1) Where does Mr. Rumsfeld get off pontificating about Geneva Conventions? This is the same man who rejected POW status, as mandated by the Geneva Conventions, for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters captured in Afghanistan. Instead they were called “illegal combatants,” a term without legal standing, and they were claimed not to be subject to the Geneva Conventions. The International Red Cross insisted that all were to be accorded POW status.


Apparently the Geneva Conventions have not been rigorously adhered to in the case of the captured fighters in Afghanistan. The treatment of these captives is of concern. Reports of abuse such as sensory deprivation, shackling of feet, trimming of beards, and segregation have emerged. Even torture from US CIA interrogation centers is alleged. Quotes from officials on torture ranged from “’If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job,’” and “’our guys may kick them around a little bit,’” to “’pain control is a very subjective thing.’” Sometimes the captive is turned over to a third country that is not so squeamish about the use of torture to extract information. (2) Most of these POWs are still being held.


In more recent years, the US disdain for the Geneva Conventions has barely been concealed. A special session of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention was called in 1999 to investigate Israeli violations against the Palestinians. The US did its utmost to shield its Middle East proxy Israel from censure over its flagrant ongoing violations of the conventions. The US opposed the special session in the Security Council. Indeed the US had even vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution in 1987 that called “on Israel to abide by the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of the Palestinians.” (3) Therefore the Palestinians brought a motion before the UN General Assembly. The vote was overwhelming and saw only two nations in opposition: the US and Israel. For the first time Geneva Convention signatories would gather to enforce adherence to the terms of the Geneva Convention. The US fought hard to undermine the special session and even boycotted it. The US uttered many threats and eventually the Palestinians postponed their right to seek justice through this forum to give the new administration of Israeli Prime Minister Barak a chance to secure an equitable peace. (4) History has revealed the folly of the Palestinian decision.


Since the current violence is without UN imprimatur, and since prominent legal experts had cautioned before the flare-up of the war that it would be illegal, it is the so-called US coalition members who are ipso facto fighting an illegal war.  As such the term “illegal combatants” would more appropriately be applied to their own forces.


Even so the US hasn’t given up on seeking international legitimization of the war. The supposedly irrelevant UN can still be relevant when it suits the needs of the US and its poodles. US casuistry is palpable. The recent attempt to secure a UN Security Council Resolution for a post-war administration of Iraq by the US and UK belligerents was a transparent example. The US habit of picking and choosing when it comes to international law is disconcerting. If all international treaty parties were to regard their obligations in a like manner then chaos would reign; the comity of nations would be imperiled. Undermining important institutions like the UN and the Geneva Conventions leads down this slippery slope.


Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. Email: kotto2001@hotmail.com




(1) Donald Macintyre, “Chilling images 'breach Geneva Convention,'” The Independent, 24 March 2003: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/story.jsp?story=390179


(2) Patrick Martin, “New account of US torture of Afghan and Arab prisoners,” World Socialist Web Site, 30 December 2002: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/dec2002/tort-d30.shtml


(3) Anonymous, “Vetoes: A list of resolutions vetoed by the USA 1972-2002,” ZNet, 15 March 2003: http://www.zmag.org/content/print_article.cfm?itemID=3238&sectionID=15   


(4) Phyllis Bennis, “Perilous Failure at Geneva,” Middle East International, 30 July 1999. Available on the Third World Network: http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/1952-cn.htm



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