Saturday, July 01, 2006


Andrew Sullivan raises the issue of chargin President Bush with war crimes in light of the Supreme Court's recent Hamdan decision:

The Hamdan decision certainly suggests that, by ignoring the Geneva Conventions even in Guantanamo (let alone in Iraq), a war crime has been committed. And in the military, the command structure insists that superiors are held accountable. I've been saying this for a long time now, and have watched aghast as the Bush administration has essentially dumped responsibility for war-crimes on the grunts at Abu Ghraib. The evidence already available proves that the president himself ordered torture and abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions. Now he has been shown to be required to act within the law, and according to the Constitution, his liability for war crimes therefore comes into focus.

I have no idea about the legal basis of such a charge, but I predict that Republicans will soon be using to whip up their base. For some time they've been claiming that keeping their House and Senate majorities is necessary to prevent the Democrats from impeaching Bush, so I would guess that they will now claim that if Democrats gain control of Congress in 2006 or the presidency in 2008 they will prosecute Bush for war crimes.

Update: Rosa Brooks has a fuller discussion in an op-ed in the LA Times:

The Hamdan decision may change a few minds within the administration. Although the decision's practical effect on the military tribunals is unclear — the administration may be able to gain explicit congressional authorization for the tribunals, or it may be able to modify them to comply with the laws of war — the court's declaration that Common Article 3 applies to the war on terror is of enormous significance. Ultimately, it could pave the way for war crimes prosecutions of those responsible for abusing detainees.

Common Article 3 forbids "cruel treatment and torture [and] outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." The provision's language is sweeping enough to prohibit many of the interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration. That's why the administration had argued that Common Article 3 did not apply to the war on terror, even though legal experts have long concluded that it was intended to provide minimum rights guarantees for all conflicts not otherwise covered by the Geneva Convention.

But here's where the rubber really hits the road. Under federal criminal law, anyone who "commits a war crime … shall be fined … or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death." And a war crime is defined as "any conduct … which constitutes a violation of Common Article 3 of the international conventions signed at Geneva." In other words, with the Hamdan decision, U.S. officials found to be responsible for subjecting war on terror detainees to torture, cruel treatment or other "outrages upon personal dignity" could face prison or even the death penalty.

Don't expect that to happen anytime soon, of course. For prosecutions to occur, some federal prosecutor would have to issue an indictment. And in the Justice Department of Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales — who famously called the Geneva Convention "quaint" — a genuine investigation into administration violations of the War Crimes Act just ain't gonna happen.

But as Yale law professor Jack Balkin concludes, it's starting to look as if the Geneva Convention "is not so quaint after all."

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