New York Times Editorial
January 29, 2002

Justice at Guantánamo

Encouragingly, President Bush now seems to be reconsidering the administration's hasty and ill- advised decision that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters being held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base are not entitled to the procedural protections of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. That arbitrary action rightly offended most of America's allies. By undermining the clear language of the convention, it also potentially endangered future American troops who may fall into enemy hands. The concerns expressed by America's top military commanders on this score may be leading Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to reconsider his initial enthusiasm for this bad idea.

Mr. Bush's second thoughts were apparently prompted by a memo submitted last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Powell rightly argued that claims of prisoner of war status could not be decided by Pentagon fiat, but must be resolved by the kind of legal hearing the convention requires. Other administration officials, like Attorney General John Ashcroft and Vice President Dick Cheney, strongly disagree, and Mr. Bush's words yesterday left it unclear which way he would ultimately decide. He should heed Secretary Powell's counsel. Justice as well as America's wider interests are best served by careful adherence to the rule of law.

The issue for now is not so much whether the Guantánamo detainees will ultimately be classified as prisoners of war but how that determination will be made. The convention states that any dispute over prisoner of war status must be resolved by a "competent tribunal" and that detainees shall remain protected under the convention until their status has been decided. Broadly speaking, that means that they are initially entitled to the same due process guarantees as an American soldier would have if accused of crimes.

Following these procedures, some held at Guantánamo, like ordinary Taliban soldiers, may qualify for prisoner of war status. Others, like Al Qaeda terrorists, almost certainly would not. Even those classified as prisoners of war could still be tried and punished for war crimes and other atrocities, provided their prosecutions are carried out in lawful court-martial proceedings or in the federal courts.

Following the standards of the Geneva Convention, a treaty signed by Washington and properly ratified by the Senate, does not require coddling violent enemies of the United States. It simply requires applying America's proud standards of justice to them.

Copyright © 2002, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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