Justice may be blind, sometimes deaf and too often dumb, but every once in a while it still gets something right.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently ordered the government to release photos documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decision was part of a case brought against the current administration by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that featured a bizarre and unintentionally humorous argument from the people who brought you Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The ACLU, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace, filed a Freedom of Information Act request back in 2003 to release documents and records pertaining to what were then sporadic reports of torture and rendition.
Other than alerting the public as to what our government has been doing in its overseas prisons, what renders this recent case noteworthy is the reasoning the administration used to fight the case. The government spent years denying detainees in the “War on Terror” rights and protections under international or U.S. law, and explicitly denied that detainees held without trial or due process – defined by the administration as “enemy combatants” – had any recourse to the Geneva Conventions. The government claimed that it did not have to release the photos because – wait for it – that would violate the detainees’ rights under the Geneva Conventions.
The government’s argument was not only without merit, but completely nonsensical as well. The Geneva Conventions stipulate that prisoners cannot be made open to “insults and public curiosity,” such as parading them through the streets or putting them in cages in a public square. Among other arguments, the Bush Administration claimed that releasing the photos, even with the faces of prisoners blocked out, would violate the prisoners’ privacy rights and by extension the Geneva Conventions.
Of course, the administration also claimed that the Geneva Conventions applied neither to the “War on Terror” nor to the torture carried out in its name. Thankfully, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit saw through the administration’s weak defense and ordered the release of the photos (similar to those that we have already seen in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal).
It is sometimes easy to think that nothing changes in the world and that the American government has pretty much been the same because it has always represented the same interests.
However, this court case belies that notion, as we see the change from a government that championed the release of pictures detailing prisoner abuse by the Germans and Japanese in World War II as a way to prove the righteousness of U.S. participation in that war. Now here we are 60 years later and our government is on the other side of the razor wire fence, arguing the righteousness of its “War on Terror” by withholding information from the public. They must think there is no better way to foster trust than lies and misinformation.
With yet another release of photos depicting torture and abuse, we can see through the administration’s flimsy claim that abuse is the result of “a few bad apples.” The picture that has been developed is one of widespread, systematic use of torture against people denied rights and justice. That the abuse is so broad in scope is an indictment against the execution of the “War on Terror” and its architects. The ACLU hopes that the ruling and photographs will help prevent further abuse of prisoners.
We might be able to take accountability a step further by extending the reach of justice into corners of the world that have not been touched for far too long. Would justice prevail if high administration officials were taken to secret prisons where they would undergo “heightened” interrogation? It might help them comprehend why the Geneva Conventions are so necessary. Experience, most would agree, is the surest path to understanding.
Brock Cutler is a graduate student in the history department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.