The legislation pushed by the Bush administration on detainees and war crimes that has inspired outrage is moving rapidly forward in Congress. After several rebellions by prominent Republicans concerned about public opinion domestically and abroad, the elected politicians are caving in on most provisions of the bill. Democrats and Republicans alike fear the shameless attack ads that might appear in their districts over the next few weeks if they voted against this so-called “national security” bill. (Those ads would fail to mention the bill’s dangerous and morally repugnant provisions.)
But many Americans, human rights organizations, diplomats, and principled politicians are still outraged. The list of groups that have spoken up against this legislation is long and growing: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Act for Change, and Just Foreign Policy. Recently, 32 former ambassadors – including 20 who served in Republican administrations – wrote that the legislation would “make a mockery” of the U.S. claim to promote democracy. To add your voice to the opposition, you can go here [http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/involved/warcrimes091906.html] to write the Senate.
The current version of the bill still allows the President to weaken America‘s obligations under the Geneva Conventions. In fact, it would let him authorize treatment of detainees that today is a war crime. This includes abuses most would consider torture, like exposure to extreme cold, placement in painful stress positions, and sexual humiliation. The version of this bill currently before the House of Representatives would even allow the Pentagon to use interrogation practices prohibited by Congress or the President by determining that it would not be “practicable or consistent with military or intelligence activities.”
Not only is this morally wrong, it would strip captured American soldiers from Geneva protections, since other countries would be less likely to respect them if we do not. It would also inflame world opinion further at a time when the intelligence agencies say U.S. actions are increasing the risk of attacks against the U.S. by creating new enemies.
Prominent Republicans, including Colin Powell and Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham stood up against this erosion of America‘s moral standing. They did this with the support of the public, two-thirds of whom say torture is never acceptable, even when interrogating terrorism suspects, according to a poll conducted by ABC in May 2004. Unfortunately, the senators backed down under pressure to unite the party before the mid-term elections.
The compromise bill would also strip detainees of their right to challenge their detention in a U.S. court. This principle of habeas corpus was enshrined in our Constitution to ensure that no one could be indefinitely detained without a fair hearing, a practice of authoritarian governments. That is exactly what could happen under this bill to people the government deems “enemy combatants,” many of whom may have nothing to do with terrorist activity.
In fact, this bill would give the government enormous reach to place people in this condemned category. All sorts of foreigners could be named “enemy combatants” and locked away for life. Even U.S. citizens could be named “enemy combatants,” though presumably Constitutional guarantees of habeas corpus would still apply to them. The government does not need to claim that these “combatants” fought against the United States, only that they assisted that fight. Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights argue that this loose definition could be applied to detainees’ lawyers or someone organizing an anti-war rally, among others.
Spurred on by public protest, some senators are making a new stand on the habeas corpus provisions. Republican senators Arlen Specter and Gordon Smith have joined Democrat Patrick Leahy in pushing an amendment that would allow detainees to challenge their detention in U.S. courts after one year without a fair hearing.
The top Democrat on the Armed Service Committee, Carl Levin, planned to offer his committee’s version of the bill as a substitute. This would greatly improve the treatment of detainees, though it still contains significant flaws related to habeas corpus.
If the public’s sense of decency and morality is not heeded, and this bill is passed – a bill which legalizes detainee abuses now considered war crimes, allows indefinite detention without a hearing, bars detainees from examining the evidence presented against them in court, and even overturns prohibitions against evidence illegally seized without a warrant – this vote may soon look like the vote to authorize war on Iraq. It will have been a mistake, morally and politically.
Efforts to improve or derail this legislation deserve our support. If you are able, call your senators at 202-224-3121 or go here [http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/involved/warcrimes091906.html] to send a letter. This needs to be done now, as the full Senate will be voting today.
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