Friday, May 06, 2005

ICRC Follies

This article, "Double-Red-Crossed," in the spring edition of The National Interest, is a keeper.

The topic is The International Committee of the Red Cross, "the world's oldest non-religious organization dedicated to humanitarian relief."

The ICRC has been busy as bees attacking the Bush Administration for its 2002 determination that captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were not legally entitled to be treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions -- which, as any sensible reading of the conventions and the situation of the captured fighters would show, they are not. Even so cold-blooded a killer as Che Guevara, as the article points out, understood the difference between guerrillas and terrorists, when he wrote, "It is necessary to distinguish clearly between sabotage, a revolutionary and highly effective method of warfare, and terrorism, a measure that is generally ineffective and indiscriminate in its results, since it often makes victims of innocent people."

The ICRC insists Al-Qaida and Taliban members at Guantanamo Bay must be treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions, or as civilians entitled to speedy trials in civilian courts. It also goes the next step and accuses the United States of intentionally using tactics "tantamount to torture."

It is important to understand what the ICRC is actually saying. It is not simply arguing that the type of criminal sexual conduct that took place at Abu Ghraib was abusive, as it surely was. Nor is it claiming that detainees are being subjected to the types of actual torture -- such as extensive and brutal beatings -- suffered by American POWs during the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, which it effectively ignored. Rather, the ICRC is suggesting that simply holding captured Al-Qaeda and Taliban members without trial and devising an interrogation regimen designed to "break their wills" -- without actually subjecting them to torture -- itself violates international law and is indeed "tantamount to torture."

Wh's this ICRC when it's at home? Well, it's not the same thing as the Red Cross that's in your hometown, finding hotel rooms for people whose houses burned down. That's the American Red Cross, an independent charity run by Americans and only loosely associated with the ICRC, via the "Red Cross Movement."

The ICRC is a Swiss organization, founded in the 1860s as part of the same movement to alleviate soldiers' suffering that led to the first "Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field." The ICRC did good work in the world wars and it played a central role in organizing the conference that drew up the 1929 Geneva Convention, which laid down the rules for POWs.

Since then, however, the organization has not been much help to American servicemen and women.

American forces have been engaged in five major armed conflicts since 1945: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. At no time in any of these wars have our adversaries accorded captured Americans the legal rights of POWs under the 1929 Geneva Convention, the 1949 Geneva Convention or customary international law. Moreover, during this entire period, the ICRC's contribution to the welfare of captured Americans was negligible.

Some 7,245 Americans were captured in Korea, and more than a third died in captivity. Throughout the Vietnam war, "American POWs were treated with unspeakable brutality," even though the U.S. in 1966 had begun treating captured Viet Cong as POWs, and according to the international rules, regardless of whether they legally merited such a designation. In Iraq today, of course, any American, civilian or military, unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the "insurgents" can expect to quickly end his or her life in a filthy basement somewhere, and have his decapitation be the most downloaded video on the Internet for about a week.

You might expect a fair-minded, impartial group like the ICRC, whose sole excuse for being is that it holds combatants to international humanitarian standards, has made many passionate public complaints about these treatments, as it has about Guantanamo. You'd be wrong.

Take the ICRC's 2001 Annual Report's section on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It is impossible to determine whether the ICRC considered his regime to be in violation of any international legal norms at all. The closest the group came to criticizing Saddam is a statement that Iraq was refusing to participate in the Tripartite Commission, established after the Gulf War principally to track missing persons. At the same time, the report noted prominently that the ICRC was "deeply concerned about the adverse consequences of the [UN] embargo in humanitarian terms", that the United States and Britain continued to enforce their self-imposed no-fly zones, and that "persistent reports of possible military action against Iraq were yet another source of psychological stress for the population."

So the ICRC's claims that it is treating the United States impartially, no better or worse than other countries, should be severely discounted. In fact, the ICRC's continuing public attacks on the administration's detainee policy have much more to do with the group's advocacy agenda than with any actual violations by the United States. The ICRC recognizes, and has promoted for thirty years, a different set of norms that are far more favorable to irregular or guerrilla warfare than those traditional norms recognized and applied by the United States.

No surprise in this statistic, though: "The United States, through the State Department, is the ICRC's largest donor. In 2003 alone, the U.S. contribution was almost $200 million, or 34 percent of the ICRC's government contributions."

The piece is a detailed examination of the ICRC's crusade against the Bushies, which puts it in the larger context of an activist drive trying to force the U.S. into adherence with treaties it did not sign or endorse, by enshrining them as international law -- based on the impartiality of the ICRC.

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