White House: Geneva Accord Applies to Detainees

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The Bush administration says that detainees in U.S. military custody are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions. The White House had previously hoped to try detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in military tribunals.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. The Pentagon has announced a significant change of policy in how it deals with detainees at U.S. prison camps. In a memo made public today, the deputy secretary of defense said that all prisoners held by the U.S. military, are covered by the protections of a single article of the Geneva Conventions. It bars inhumane treatment. Gordon England's memo follows a Supreme Court ruling, last month, that invalidated the Pentagon system for trying prisoners. Today, the Senate began debate on how to go forward with detainee trials. We'll have more on that in a couple of minutes. First, we're joined by NPR's Jackie Northam to talk about the Pentagon's move. And Jackie, I just said this was a significant change in policy, how significant is it?

Ms. JACKIE NORTHAM (National Security Correspondent, NPR News): It is very significant. It's very important, both in substance and in symbolism. It's a reversal of the Bush administration's policies on the treatment and prosecution of detainees. And these are policies that have generated enormous controversy. The prosecution and treatment of detainees falls under what's known as Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention and that article, among other things, prevents violence against detainees, including torture and cruel, degrading and humiliating treatment. Also under Article Three, detainees are given basic legal rights at a trial. Now in 2002, President Bush said that Article Three did not apply to members of al-Qaida or the Taliban; to suspected terrorists that are being held at Guantanamo and other locations. Now today, that position has been reversed.

BLOCK: And what does that change mean, then, in practical terms for detainees who are held at U.S. military prisons around the world?

Ms. NORTHAM: Well, foremost, it means that now there will be a basic standard of treatment for detainees held at military prisons. So no torture, no aggressive interrogation techniques such as water-boarding, and this is where a detainee is made to feel as though he's drowning during questioning. This memo was sent to U.S. military field commanders and high-ranking officials in many parts of the Defense Department and it addresses prisoners held by the military. It doesn't apply to detainees held outside the military system. So, in other words, people held by the CIA. And it's the CIA that's believed to be holding the very high-ranking al-Qaida people in secret prisons around the world.

BLOCK: Jackie, help us understand something. When the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, was asked about this today, here's what he said. He said it's not really a reversal of policy. Human treatment has always been the standard, and that is something that they followed at Guantanamo. Those are Tony Snow's words.

Ms. NORTHAM: That's right. Well the government has always maintained that the spirit of the Geneva Conventions was applied at Guantanamo, even if the real thing was not, and that the detainees have always been treated humanely. And if not, any allegations have been investigated. But there have been so many allegations of abuse and torture by interrogators, and some of that was captured on film like at Abu Ghraib. There are also the so-called torture policies, and they were drawn up by the Bush administration, and they okayed aggressive interrogation techniques, although most of those have now been reversed. But, you know, there isn't the same willingness now, as there was four years ago, just really to accept the administration, trust me, it's okay policy. And I think the policy that we're seeing today is really a reflection of that.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about what this memo doesn't do. It does not address any other part of the Geneva Conventions, except what we've been talking about, Common Article Three.

Ms. NORTHAM: That's right. Pentagon officials today made it very clear that this doesn't address whether detainees, like those held at Guantanamo, can be called prisoners of war. Right now, the Bush administration calls those detainees enemy combatants. It's a term that the government came up with after 9/11. If it did call them POWs, that could have an impact on things, such as how the detainees could be repatriated or tried. And that's something which is being debated by Congress, right now.

BLOCK: Okay, Jackie, thanks very much.

Ms. NORTHAM: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR's National Security Correspondent, Jackie Northam.

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