Politics & Policy

Red (Cross) Alert

The ICRC goes after Gitmo (again).

Yet another International Committee of the Red Cross report blasting the Bush administration’s treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees in Guantanamo was

splashed–where else?–across the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday. The report, dating back to last July, demonstrates how the old ICRC–respected, scrupulously neutral, and concerned with applying the traditional laws of war–is finally dead. It has instead become another typical “humanitarian” NGO, a cross between Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It has a clear policy agenda to transform the traditional laws of war into something akin to the rules of domestic law enforcement, and is intensely anti-American and anti-Israel to boot.

Some background: The ICRC still refuses to accredit Israel’s domestic equivalent of the Red Cross. In protest of this inexcusable surrender to anti-Semitism, the American Red Cross withholds 25 percent of its dues from the ICRC. For years, the ICRC was an organization like the American Red Cross. It didn’t have any political agenda. It just showed up in war zones to make sure prisoners were afforded treatment in accordance with the laws of war. Sometime in the 1970s this changed. The ICRC became an advocate of affording national-liberation movements rights and privileges to which they aren’t entitled, and it began to fellow-travel with left-wing NGOs. The ICRC’s tilt can be seen in the relative indifference with which it reacted to the murder and torture of American POWs in both our wars with Saddam Hussein. It is only alleged abuses by the U.S. that prompts true indignation from the ICRC.

“When will the U.S.,

and like-minded countries, begin

to call the ICRC’s bluff?”

Which brings us to the latest report. It follows on several similar products over the last two years and features the usual criticism of the administration’s Guantanamo policies, only taken up a notch. The ICRC’s positions are not rooted in either law or sound policy. Consider two key criticisms in the report.

The first is the argument that the indeterminate length of detention to which Guantanamo-held al Qaeda and Taliban personnel are being subjected has been causing them such psychological and mental anguish that it qualifies as a form of torture. It is understandable that Guantanamo detainees would be unhappy about having been caught. But the notion that captured enemy fighters, both POWs and unlawful combatants, can be held for the entire duration of hostilities is at the very foundation of the modern laws of war–regardless of its effect on their psyche. Indeed, the right to detain captured combatants in this fashion arose at the same time–in the 1500s–that the obligation to accord them “quarter” emerged as the most important humanitarian breakthrough. Prior to that, most captured enemy fighters were put to the sword, while the few wealthy noblemen were held for ransom.

As we know only too well from history–backed up by the experience of the last year– captured enemy fighters who are prematurely released return to the fight. This prolongs the war on terror and causes unnecessary additional civilian and combat casualties. The ICRC seems not to care.

The second ICRC criticism is that the use of any psychologically coercive methods of interrogation at Guantanamo–designed to elicit intelligence information from captured al Qaeda and Taliban personnel–is also a form of torture. This view is not based upon any sound construction of the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, or any other applicable international treaty or convention. Unlike POWs, unlawful combatants can and should be aggressively interrogated, and are entitled only to humane treatment. As any aficionado of detective novels or TV series knows, the good-cop-bad-cop routine and psychological pressure permeate the questioning of even criminal suspects and passes muster under the world’s most liberal constitutions. To accord more protections and sensitive treatment than this to unlawful combatants is foolish on its face.

The ICRC is entitled to speak in favor of what it believes to be good policies as much as any other NGO. But no one should pretend that this is the old scrupulously neutral ICRC, the one that wielded enormous legitimacy and properly received substantial government funding and support. U.S. taxpayers alone contribute over $200 million to the ICRC annually. This new ICRC should not be entitled to any special rights and privileges vis-à-vis sovereign governments, including the right to visit places like Guantanamo. The most important question raised by this latest report is, When will the U.S., and like-minded countries, begin to call the ICRC’s bluff?

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