A proposed military doctrine on detainee operations drew fire from a human rights group who said it reaffirmed the policy of classifying members of certain extremist groups "enemy combatants" not protected by the Geneva Conventions.
The doctrine "will send a message to the world that the Geneva Conventions are not law, but mere policies that can be changed according to tastes of a particular government," Human Rights Watch said in a letter to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Disregarding fundamental principles will in particular suggest that all provisions of the conventions are subject to unilateral modification," said the letter by Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director.
The United States began declaring members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban as illegal "enemy combatants" who were not entitled to Geneva Convention protections in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the ensuing US-led campaign in Afghanistan.
Long a target of international criticism, the US stance has come under mounting pressure over the past year as US courts have affirmed the right of detainees to challenge their detention in courts and ruled that trials by special military commission were unconstitutional.
Some 540 detainees are currently held as enemy combatants at a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Others may be held in Iraq or Afghanistan, or at other secret locations.
Despite the legal challenges, the "Joint Doctrine for Detainee Operations: Joint Publication 3-63" reasserts the creation of an "additional classification" of detainee, enemy combatants, "who through their own conduct, are not entitled to the privileges and protection of the Geneva Convention."
While that status originally applied to suspected al-Qaeda or Taliban members, the draft doctrine says anyone affiliated with terrorists or terrorist groups listed under a presidential order "will be classified as EC (enemy combatant)."
"Furthermore, there are individuals that may not be affiliated with the listed organizations that may be classified as an EC," the document said.
Roth said permitting anybody to be classified as an enemy combatant "effectively allows the Defense Department to ignore, unlawfully and without any basis whatsoever, the objective standards for prisoner of war and protected person under the Geneva Conventions."
"Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that JP 3-63 on its face contravenes the Geneva Conventions," he wrote.
© 2005 Agence France-Presse