February issue 2002
Prisoners of Conscience
Two men from Moradabad (UP, India) recently went to an airport in New Delhi to receive a guest. While waiting for the visitor they started exchanging views on their daily concerns and used the word masail in their conversation in Urdu. The hyper-sensitive cops present there concluded that they were talking of missiles. They were promptly marched off towards a prison where they spent a night before some influentials’ intercession won them release.
This will be considered a minor incident, but it can be used as a footnote to the growing account of erosion of human rights in the crazy post-September 11 world. The values recognised as universal and indivisible human rights after centuries of struggle are being thrown overboard by parties best-equipped to protect them and which had, till recently, used them as one of the principal cold war weapons. In this process the worst sufferers are prisoners and those held captive before being recognised as prisoners.
The case of Taliban supporters, Afghans as well as other nationals, who were brutally killed after being taken prisoner, has been dismissed in a most repulsive manner. The demand by highly respected international human rights organisations that the massacre at Qila-i-Jangi, overseen by the holy warriors of the US-led coalition forces, must be judicially investigated was turned down with contempt on two grounds, that the victims had taken up arms against the guards and that as members of Al Qaeda they deserved no mercy. The first excuse was an issue in the probe demanded and the matter could not be arbitrarily disposed of. The second plea smacked of primitive savagery. The only evidence against the victims was that they had fought against invaders of their land, original or adopted. They had not blown up the towers in New York and had not committed crimes against humanity of the kind perpetrated in the Nazi concentration camps. The only possible conclusion was that as prisoners of war belonging to a vanquished and despised adversary they were not entitled to respect for their human rights.
Then began the macabre drama of prisoners’ transfer to the US base in Cuba. They were drugged and chained for the long flight, supposedly for reason of security. At the detention centre they have been put in cages (open to elements) of the type hitherto used only for wild animals, shaved and gagged against their will, and given a costume identifiable as a target from a distance. They are denied access to both friend and counsel and have been deprived of recourse to judicial redress under the system applicable to their captors in the latter’s own land. They have been further humiliated by the release of photographs depicting their wretchedness.
In the eyes of international humanitarian law these men are prisoners of war and they have been deprived of protection under the Geneva Conventions. The US authorities argue that they are‘unlawful combatants’ and not prisoners of war, disregarding the fact that the moment they use the expression combatants, the prisoners come under the purview of the Geneva Conventions which demand that prisoners’ lives must be respected, that they should be properly housed, fed and cared for, and that they should not be subjected to inhuman treatment.
Even if, for the sake of argument, these men are not treated as prisoners of war, they are in any case prisoners and to them the UN Minimum Standard Rules for Prisoners apply, which prohibit inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees regardless of the charges against them. They are also covered under the Convention against Torture. Disregard for these instruments implies that the prisoners are not considered human beings. This is a most dangerous development as it reveals a mindset determined to discard all humanitarian considerations while fighting terrorism and accuse anyone who raises questions of human rights of sympathy with terrorists. This pernicious logic, which is based on absolute falsehood, is extremely ominous. International humanitarian law is neither universally respected nor is it considered comprehensive enough to reflect modern civilisational values. The Geneva Conventions too need progressive updating as the dignity of the human person is recognised on an increasingly higher scale. This important work is going to run into snags if the present aberrations by big powers go unchallenged.
The government of Great Britain, the seniormost and perhaps the most enthusiastic ally of the US in its war and post-war strategies, was shocked to learn of the presence of one of its nationals at the Cuban base. It demanded and secured consular access to him. Who will speak for the Afghans? The interim regime in Kabul cannot even be suspected of entertaining such daring ideas No one can say with surety that there are no Pakistanis in the miserable lot. Islamabad has not thought of caring for them. It will be a grave setback to human rights if people in any circumstances begin to be denied the rights accruing to them by virtue of belonging to a nationality.
Unfortunately, the downward slide in the international community’s perception of the rights of prisoners of war is likely to adversely affect treatment of prisoners in national jurisdictions. The fate of the people detained in the United States and elsewhere in the context of the probe into the September 11 events is a pointer to this regression. In Pakistan, too, many detainees have been denied the due protection of law only because the authorities allege connections with terrorist organisations or their sympathisers.
Such abuse of authority is likely to enlarge the scope of preventive detention regulations at the cost of citizens’ rights to liberty, and freedoms of association and expression.
Human rights activists have a duty to demand treatment of all detainees in accordance with due processes in the international humanitarian law. They cannot be accused of condoning any mischief, including terrorism, for they are manifestly opposed to it. The rights of prisoners will have to be given their due place in both national and international discourses. Otherwise, we will push humankind back into a savage dispensation, escape from which has been one of its most radiant achievements in the long journey towards civilisation and self-discovery.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.