Saturday, November 29, 2008

From "Standard Operating Procedures", Gourevitch/Morris

How do you deal with an atrocity?

They keep happening in this golden era of ours, as we slip the chains of our superstitious religious beliefs that we might be held to account one day for our actions - ethnic cleansing, mass murder, systematic brutality. How should we react to them?

It is wrong to demonise the protagonists - to behave as though they were somehow much worse than any of us. Nobody ever gets up in the morning and says, "You know what? I feel like violating the human rights of large numbers of other people today." And it's also wrong to rationalise the actions in some way - to behave as though there could be some justification for the systematic extermination of a race, or the torture of prisoners. There isn't - and any human being reflecting with any sort of detachment on such events for more than a few minutes has to come to that conclusion.

The approach taken in this book is helpful. It is a calm, dispassionate analysis of what happened in the prison at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were abused by US military personnel, based on accounts from eyewitnesses - the people involved in the actions. It ties in with the award-winning film of the same name. The book does respond "editorially" to the events, but the response is disconnected from the reporting, and the authors work hard to establish what went on not for the sake of startling headlines, but from the perspective of the people involved - to understand how these events could have happened; what could have led these people to behave in this way.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn on the basis of the book is that given the situation that prevailed at Abu Ghraib, the events that so sensationally appeared in newspapers were perhaps not as awful as they appeared. Please note that this is not a justification - but as a matter of record, some of the pictures don't tell the whole story of what was happening. Further, the people involved - often reservists, undertrained, under pressure, uninformed, in a foul living environment themselves - could almost be considered victims themselves. The real problems lie further back - with the decision made at the highest level in the US government that the Geneva Convention could be set aside in some circumstances; with the use of different government agencies, diluting avenues of accountability and responsibility ; and frankly, with the naive way in which the US embarked upon this war in Iraq.

Here is an extract:
... the designation security detainee, or security internee (the terms were used interchangeably), is nowhere explicitly defined in law. And yet, it was from the Geneva Conventions that the occupation authorities in Iraq derived the justification for holding prisoners in this category. The fourth convention, which extends Geneva's regime of rights and protections to civilians n wartime, includes a few lines in Article Five that create an exception for anyone "detailed as a spy or saboteur, or as a person under definite suspicion of activity hostile to the security of the Occupying Power." Such captives are still to be treated with humanity, and they are covered by nearly all of Geneva's usual provisions. But, the convention says, in the name of "absolute military security" or "imperative military necessity," they may be held incommunicado and indefinitely, so long as their cases are reviewed by the occupier from time to time - "if possible every six months."

That is all the fourth convention has to say about the matter. It is as general and open to interpretation as the third convention's rules on POWs are particular and rigorously prescriptive. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its longstanding commentary on Geneva, describes the critical loophole created by Article Five of the fourth convention as uncharacteristically "involved," "open to question," and "regrettable." "What is most to be feared," the ICRC says, "is that widespread application of the Article may eventually lead to the existence of a category of civilian internees who do not receive the normal treatment laid down by the Convention but are detained under conditions which are almost impossible to check. It must be emphasized most strongly, therefore, that Article Five can only be applied in individual cases of an exceptional nature, when the existence of specific charges makes it almost certain that penal proceedings will follow. This Article should never be applied as a result of mere suspicion." (Standard Operating Procedures, p.33)
This is not a pleasant read, but it is a book that ought to be read - it ought to be mandatory reading for people at high levels in government and the military, to help them to understand the way in which policy decisions they make have a direct and perhaps unexpected impact on actions that are taken at ground level. The people at those high levels can't absolve themselves of responsibility for Abu Ghraib simply because they weren't carrying out the actions. And it ought to be read by citizens, to help them to understand why the protections of things like the Geneva Convention were put in place, and what it would mean to them if they weren't there.