Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Bush took the step Thursday because it "could be considered a precedent for the future.'' In other words, declaring that the Geneva Convention applies now would give the United States a better argument against mistreatment of U.S. troops detained in the future.
Bush also sought to quell international criticism of the treatment of Afghan war detainees, particularly the 186 being held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Administration officials on Thursday repeated their assertions that the prisoners were getting humane treatment. "They have always been treated consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention, which means they will be treated well,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
The Bush administration said the 1949 Geneva Convention on treatment of war detainees does not apply to members of the al-Qaida terrorist network, however. The convention - actually a series of treaties - applies to nations at war, not to terrorist groups, the Bush administration said.
Bush refused to consider classifying al-Qaida or Taliban fighters as prisoners of war, denying them a wide range of rights and privileges afforded to POWs under the Geneva Convention. For example, POWs must be returned to their home country once the war is over. The president settled that key POW issue weeks ago, but that left the question of whether the conflict in Afghanistan and the detainees fall under the Geneva pacts. Saying the conflict is covered by the Geneva Convention will help preserve protections for U.S. troops if they are captured in Afghanistan or elsewhere during the war on terrorism.
Although the United States never recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's government, they do qualify as one under the Geneva Convention, the Bush administration said. Still, officials said, Taliban fighters do not deserve POW status because they did not follow the convention's other rules. "The Taliban have not effectively distinguished themselves from civilian population of Afghanistan. Moreover, they have not conducted their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war,'' Fleischer said.
Shortly after the White House announced Bush's decision, the Guantanamo Bay facility received 28 new prisoners from Afghanistan. They are kept in chain-link cells that critics call cages. U.S. forces also hold 324 detainees in Afghanistan. Even before Thursday's decision, the Guantanamo Bay detainees received three meals a day, medical care, clothing, shelter, showers and opportunity to worship, Fleischer said. The president's decision Thursday will not change those conditions Bush does not want the detainees to get taxpayer-funded stipends and things such as musical instruments afforded to POWs, Fleischer said.
Michael Noone, professor at Catholic University law school and an expert on the Geneva Convention, said Bush's decision will have no effect on U.S. operations, either in Afghanistan or at Guantanamo. "What this does is it clarifies some of the things the U.S. has said before in a way that intends to respond to domestic and international criticism of the United States' failure to comply with the Geneva Convention rules,'' Noone said.
Noone said the convention offers little guidance about the treatment of prisoners, other than those considered POWs. "If somebody is picked up in a war and doesn't qualify as a POW, the assumption is that that person will be treated humanely and that's as far as it goes,'' he said.
Prisoners of war are the rough legal equivalents of American soldiers. They are required only to give the familiar name, rank and service number, and may not be further questioned against their will. Unlawful combatants, on the other hand, may be questioned at length as long as they are not tortured or otherwise mistreated.
Some people have argued that some Taliban figures might qualify for status as legal combatants, as defined by the Geneva Convention, and therefore are entitled to POW status. One such figure could be Mullah Fazel Mazloom, the Taliban army chief of staff who is among those held at Guantanamo Bay.