Government & Constitution

Congress Confused on Who Interprets Geneva Conventions for U.S.

Before President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) reportedly reached a compromise on the issue last week (the details of which had not been made public by press time), Bush was asking Congress for legislation to clarify for U.S. intelligence officers the meaning of the vague language in the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners.

Bush had suggested Congress adopt for this purpose the standards in the Detainee Treatment Act pushed through Congress last year by McCain himself.

McCain would have none of it. He argued that legislation clarifying the vague language was wrong because it would provide enemies of the U.S. with a pretext to violate the Geneva Conventions and abuse American prisoners.

The issue arose when a five-member liberal majority of the Supreme Court erroneously ruled in June, in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to terrorists, even though no terrorist group is a signatory.

The vague language in Article 3 prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity.”

In a press conference last week, Bush said, “That statement is wide open to interpretation, and what I am proposing is that there be clarity in the law so our professionals will have no doubt that what they are doing is legal.”

But when I asked members of Congress last week who should decide what these vague words mean when they are applied to U.S. intelligence officers’ interrogation of terrorists, answers ranged from an international committee to the Supreme Court to some who agreed with Bush that Congress itself must do it.

Sen. Barak Obama (D.-Ill.) said: “You’ve got an international treaty. I think the Supreme Court of the United States has the most experience and background in interpreting what this means.”

Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.) said: “I don’t think you have to clarify this. I think you clarify it based upon any time your actions are questioned by the international committee.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine) told me, “I think Congress should make a decision.”

Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Idaho), who supported the President’s bill, said, “Treaties are made to be interpreted, and interpreted appropriately, by the Congress of the United States.”

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) echoed Craig. “I think every country has to decide under its own laws and its own constitution what it means,” he said.

Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.) thought the decision just ought to be made somewhere in the U.S. government. “I would like to see us, the United States Congress, the United States Senate and the United States courts clarify this as opposed to leaving it to some international tribunal or the Hague to define that,” he said.


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