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Sunday, March 23

Geneva conventions aim to protect POWs

By Fredreka Schouten | GNS

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials are calling on Iraqis to honor the Geneva Conventions and treat captured soldiers humanely.

But there are no guarantees Iraqi officials will comply, and it’s difficult to punish countries that break the rules.

"Their track record is abysmal," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said of Iraq’s treatment of prisoners of war during the 1991 Gulf War.

Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke on CNN Sunday.

Administration officials argue that by shooting footage of prisoners and broadcasting it on television, Iraq already has violated the accords.

The conventions are four international agreements that govern the treatment of prisoners of war, the care of wounded troops and the protection of civilians during war. The treaties take their name from Geneva, Switzerland, where the first agreement was finalized in 1864.

"It’s not permitted to photograph and embarrass or humiliate prisoners of war," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday.

The footage is a violation because countries "are not supposed to parade POWs publicly," said Alfred Rubin, a professor emeritus of international law at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The treaties also specify that prisoners of war should not be tortured and have the right to refuse to cooperate with interrogators. The accords also require the return of POWs once hostilities end, unless they are accused of war crimes. And POWs who die in captivity must be buried "honorably."

Rubin said many of the treaties’ provisions have been ignored in the past. And while most countries have signed on to the agreements, there is no permanent structure to prosecute and punish countries that violate the terms.

Complicating the issue further is the debate over the United States’ treatment of Taliban and al-Qaida detainees at an American military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Bush administration has refused to classify the detainees there as POWs protected under the conventions. U.S. officials say they treat the fighters captured in Afghanistan humanely, but are not bound by the Geneva treaties because al-Qaida is a stateless terror network that does not behave like an army.

"The Iraqis could say, ‘We’ll do whatever we like. If the U.S. won’t apply the conventions in Afghanistan, why should they be considered applicable here?’ " Rubin said.

On Sunday, President Bush promised consequences if the American captives are harmed.

"I expect them to be treated … humanely," Bush told reporters. "If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals."

In that case, U.S. officials could pursue war crimes charges in an international court.

On the Web: The American Red Cross’ site on the Geneva Convention