Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Worse than Abu Ghraib

Here you go, a nice and horrifying interview with Leila Sadat, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and vice-president of the American branch of the International Law Association.

Going back to the Abu Ghraib comparison, which do you think is more disturbing -- Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo?

I found the level of sadism to be pretty surprising at Abu Ghraib and very emotionally upsetting. But it's more understandable in context, because again you had undermanned troops in a war situation being given this command to sort of soften up the prisoners for interrogation.

But Guantánamo has come to symbolize in international law circles or even diplomatic circles, this attempt by the U.S. to set up law-free zones. So I think Guantánamo is maybe the scarier of the two precedents. Abu Ghraib will leave a searing image, but it was more flowing from the war, whereas Guantánamo is clearly something where the secretary of defense has said these people are going to be held until they need to be held. That this is a war on terror and we don't know how long it will last. So the prospect of sort of indefinite detention, holding people without even keeping a register, is very ominous.

Is it possible, following this damning report, that the Bush administration will try to block the Red Cross from visiting Guantánamo in the future?

I think the administration could say, "Look, if Geneva law does not apply, then we don't want the Red Cross there.

Is that a plausible scenario?

I think it's very plausible, I do. Four years ago I never would have said that. I think now almost everything's plausible. I'm sure it's being discussed right now.

And if the U.S. did deny the Red Cross entrée to prison camps, what league would that put us in?

That would put us alongside North Korea.

I think one of the things that's so upsetting about this is that international law is based on reciprocity. And so when the United States starts undermining the system, it sort of gives a green light to everybody else to start undermining the system. Right now it's the United States saying, "We don't really care." And next it might be Zimbabwe that starts copying us and saying, "Well, these are unlawful combatants," or what have you. I understand the trauma of 9/11, the temptation to overreact from 9/11, but administration officials are sort of putting out the fire on one end and ignoring the huge blaze they're setting on the others.

Because the fear is, what happens if it's U.S. troops who are the ones being held captive?

Right. The U.S. is gong to want the protection of the Geneva Conventions. If our soldiers are captured, we don't want another state saying, "Oh, they're unlawful combatants, we're going to torture them." That's why I really don't understand the government's lack of perspective on this issue.

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