The International Committee of the Red
Cross said on Friday it considered Taliban and al Qaeda
fighters held by U.S. forces to be prisoners of war, despite
Washington's refusal to accept that.
"They were captured in combat (and) we consider them
prisoners of war," ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen told Reuters.
President Bush agreed on Thursday to apply the Geneva
Conventions to Taliban prisoners but said the al Qaeda network
could not be considered a state that is party to the treaty,
which guarantees a wide range of rights to captives.
Even though acknowledging the Conventions applied to the
Taliban, Washington said that group would not be granted full
prisoner of war status.
A spokesman for United Nations High Commissioner for Human
Rights Mary Robinson, who has warned the United States it must
treat captives humanely, said she felt Washington's decision
could be a "step forward."
But Jose Luis Diaz added that her legal advisers were still
examining the implications of Bush's announcement.
Britain, the staunchest ally of the United States in its
war against those it considers responsible for the September 11
attacks in New York and Washington, welcomed the move.
There was no immediate response from other European
countries, several of which have expressed strong reservations
about the way captives from the war in Afghanistan are held.
Washington triggered a storm of international protest after
a photograph was released showing some inmates at the
Guantanamo Bay prison camp manacled, blindfolded and on their
knees. The United States has dismissed all suggestions of
STATUS STILL DISPUTED
Granting prisoner of war status to the captives would have
given them sweeping rights, including the right to disclose
only their name, rank and serial number under interrogation and
to go home as soon as the conflict ended.
Both the ICRC and Robinson said that under the Geneva
Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory, any
dispute over the status of a prisoner must be settled by a
tribunal and not the government of one of the sides to the
"You cannot simply decide...what applies to one person and
what applies to another. This has to go to court because it is
a legal decision not a political one," Christen said.
The ICRC spokesman also noted that Article Three of the
Third Geneva Convention on captives taken in international
combat applied to all fighters.
The article sets out minimum standards, including
prohibiting cruel treatment and guaranteeing that any trial of
prisoners must be carried out before a "regularly constituted"
Christen said that there was no category under humanitarian
law giving more than minimum Article Three protection but
falling short of full prisoner of war status -- as the U.S.
decision implied. "It does not exist," he said.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that if Washington
gave prisoner of war status to Taliban fighters and members of
al Qaeda -- the network loyal to Saudi-born militant Osama bin
Laden who Washington says masterminded the September 11 attacks
-- it would be virtually impossible to interrogate them.
Christen noted that former Panamanian dictator Manuel
Noriega -- overthrown and captured by U.S. troops in 1990 --
was formally declared a prisoner of war but this did not
prevent him being tried and jailed in the United States for
The ICRC is visiting prisoners held at the U.S. naval base
at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as inside Afghanistan and will
continue to report on their treatment based on standards laid
down in the Geneva Convention.
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