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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 18:04 GMT
Cuban detainees: Are they prisoners of war?
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has insisted that al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects being held at the Guantanamo base in Cuba will not be given prisoner of war status.

Speaking during a visit to the camp along with four other US senators, Mr Rumsfeld told reporters that the war against terrorism required a new way of thinking and new concepts.

The remarks were intended as a response to continuing debate about the legal status of the prisoners, and whether they should be granted prisoner of war rights under the Geneva Convention.

He said the al-Qaeda prisoners did not belong to an army, or wear distinguishable uniforms and insignia - they were people engaged in attacks on civilians and insisted they could not be treated as POWs.

Should the Afghan prisoners be given POW status?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

The principle problem is that the attitude and actions of Al Qaeda have no precedent. With no formal declaration of war, the organisation that these prisoners have chosen to stand up and be counted with, slaughtered 4,000 innocent people in a few short hours. I realise US foreign policy leaves a lot to be desired, but nothing justifies this kind of thing.

Most prisoners can be kept in check partly by their own sense of self preservation.

Dan, UK
Combine this with the totally unique mindset of these people and you have an almost impossible situation. Most prisoners can be kept in check partly by their own sense of self preservation. For example no ordinary prisoner will do anything they know will get them killed. These terrorists are not ordinary people though. The sheer lack of respect they have for human life, even their own was amply demonstrated on September 11th, and as a result, I don't doubt one of them would hurl themselves onto a barbed wire fence, or cut the throat of a guard if they deemed it viable.

You cannot blame the Americans for not giving them an inch. Perhaps those who criticise should go and guard these people for a few hours and then say that their treatment is too harsh. I personally think the Americans are acting in self preservation, and I cannot blame them at all. As long as the prison provides ample food, water and shelter from the elements, and a fair, impartial trial occurs sooner rather than later, there are no reasonable grounds for complaint.
Dan, UK

I can't believe how fickle the liberal media are. The villains of the last 4 months are suddenly being made into the good guys!
Ben, England

A lot of good points out here. However, the fact of the matter is that these people want to kill the "infidels", and are continuing in their attempts. How much respect does that deserve? Are we to jeopardize a nation's safety for the opinions of the humanitarian effort? These detainees aren't being treated poorly, they are cuffed because they are dangerous. How do we pity them more than the thousands of innocent people that perished for no apparent good reason? Let us not forget that captive or not, these people are on a mission of destruction. As long as they are clothed and fed they are being treated with as much dignity as murderers deserve.
Breeze, USA

Let's hear some old fashioned evidence

Julius, UK
Have I missed something? Just because these guys are dressed like convicts and labelled "al-Qaeda terrorists" by a government under considerable pressure at home (and not beyond generous use of its own "unlawful combatants" with no uniform for questionable ends) can't be the only standard of proof required, can it? I mean, am I to believe Bush's implication that some men really are created more equal than others? How easily the rights of man are ignored. Put them in a prison, take them to a court that isn't some kangaroo military tribunal and let's hear some old fashioned evidence.
Julius, UK

Prisoners of war or not, they're the lucky few! The Taleban prisoners in Afghan prisons are going hungry, are freezing, living in filth, in prisons filled eight-times over capacity, and are actually begging to be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Stephen Kenney, USA

The US threatened the attacks of Sept 11th as acts of war. We attacked Afghanistan in turn. We've rounded up the combatants as a result of combat. Like it or not. They're POW's. Whether or not their acts of terrorism are war crimes is for the courts to decide. I don't think the US is going to benefit from this in the long run. What's to stop anyone from taking US soldiers and labelling them as unlawful combatants instead of POW's. I don't think we would be too impressed if that happened. In fact we'd be screaming our collective heads off. It's unfortunate the government is being so short-sighted, again.
Don Durham, Canada (US Expat)

The Geneva conventions are out of date.

The Geneva conventions are out of date. Wars in the future will more often be "country vs criminal group" and less often "country vs country". In the old type of warfare two countries' forces would fight until a certain strategic point was reached, then the hostilities would stop, a deal would be signed to govern the new state of affairs between the two countries and prisoners would be repatriated as in peacetime they would pose no threat to the other side. In the new type of warfare, hostilities probably can never be said to have truly ended intelligence carried by enemy forces is as necessary a weapon in the continuing conflict as a rifle or a missile. It's a safe assumption that were the situation reversed, Al-Qaeda would be interested in finding out from an American captive all he knew about US military movements. Any replacement for the Geneva Conventions need to define humane rules for detention and interrogation of such captives.
JW, London, UK

The Cuban detainees are enemies of society that have no regard for who they kill. They have one motive...and, that is to destroy innocent people. The question 'are they prisoners of war'? is meaningless. They have been apprehended because they are killers. Most are Saudis. (Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia). This does not change the fact that they must be detained and prevented from doing any further damage to civilians. The US has been patient with them and treated them very well. Did these terrorists think about the innocent men and women they murdered? Or, the families that have been grief stricken? Of course not. And, they gave no thought to good people they made to be victims. These terrorists deserve only one thing. To be isolated from civilized people and society.
Dave Adams, USA

I think that, regardless of whether the prisoners have official POW status, the US should treat them with as much respect as possible until it decides their fate. They entered their war claiming to be defenders of civilisation, which I take to be the application of a humane consensus. This is not to say that they should not punish anyone that they find guilty, only that they should be certain. I also think that they have a questionable right to punish members of the Taleban. It should be the job of the Afghanis or the UN.
Richard Merchant, Glasgow, Scotland

I am shocked that these prisoners are being detained in cages measuring 8 x 8 feet. Even an animal's cage at the zoo is bigger than that.
Ferhad Azman , Malaysia

As a combatant myself, I would be quite pleased to be treated as a prisoner in the way that the Americans are treating theirs.

Adrian B, UK
The Geneva Conventions do not protect combatants who do not wear uniform. Historically, such people were tried by military tribunal and if found guilty were shot by firing squad. I believe all combatants did this during WW2 for instance. The execution of French Resistants by the Germans has never been deemed to have been a war crime for this reason. None of the Afghan combatants was wearing a uniform. That said it could be argued that the cultural standards of the area preclude the wearing of uniform. However, the Taleban were in the habit of distinguishing themselves by wearing black turbans. Thus you could argue that the Taleban qualify as PoWs whilst Al Qaeda are illegal combatants. Either way they are being treated as PoWs (it is their legal status which is yet to be determined). As a combatant myself, I would be quite pleased to be treated as a prisoner in the way that the Americans are treating theirs. Regrettably, I would have little chance of being treated anything like that well if I were captured by the Taleban.
Adrian B, UK

These detainees are soldiers fighting for an army they chose to be in and are did what their superiors told them to do. They are soldiers fighting, just like any other countries soldiers fighting for their countries cause. I don't believe they did know intelligence information they were just soldiers. Likewise one could also punish other soldiers fighting for their countries beliefs, etc. They are not the cause, they are just caught up in the turmoil. They should be treated as POW, if the Americans wish to call their fight "War on Terrorism".
Korrina Alonso, Australia

Yes, they are war prisoners. I do not care how Bush and his friends classify them. We went to war, and captured them. Whether or not they have uniforms or name badges, they are still war captives and should be treated as such.
Udechukwu Tony, United States

"Unlawful combatants" isn't something that's been made up - it exists for spies, and should also exist for terrorists. P

Ed Vista, UK
Ok, it's probably important to mention that these terrorist organisations use our civil liberties as weapons against us. Warfare and the Geneva Convention makes no allowances for so-called Asymmetrical Warfare - it's designed to protect people in 'civilised' wars - country versus country. A terrorist exists as a member of a covert organisation, usually based and launching strikes from within the target country. In these instances, the terrorists are acting in the same way as spies and should be treated as such. Spies are treated as unlawful combatants i.e. they are not uniformed foot soldiers that can be readily identified.

People don't seem to realise that 'unlawful combatants' isn't something that's been made up - it exists for spies, and should also exist for terrorists. People in future should be deterred from joining terrorist organisations by making these people pay the price, whether it be with their lives or freedoms.
Ed Vista, UK

The question is not "should they be treated as POWs", it is should they be treated as "Suspect" or "Guilty". We have already seen that John Walker Lindh has been given the benefit of the presumption of innocence unlike his Middle Eastern brethren. The treatment of POWs should be the lowest acceptable level of treatment. Any new categorisation must at least meet this standard.
Jan, UK

The detainees in Cuba should not be granted prisoner of war status. Donald Rumsfeld said that if these prisoners become prisoners of war, they do not have to answer questions put to them except for the very basic personal ones, such as names, etc. The US wants to be able to question them extensively about terrorist activities and any plots that may be in the works right now. Rumsfeld has also said they are very close to talking. Keep in mind that this information could thwart any possible future attacks world-wide and save many innocent lives.
Jane Rubino, US

No less a person than the secretary of state Collin Powell strongly recommends that the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay be treated as prisoners of war, as per the Geneva Convention. The attitude of Bush and Rumsfeld should be magnanimous in victory. Are they peeved that they couldn't nab the big two- Mullah Umar and Osama bin Laden?
Shariq Jamal, India

The Geneva Convention says that POWs have to be released when the war is over. This is almost an incentive for a country to start a war and a carte-blanch for terrorists like Al-Qaeda, no matter what they do they can't lose. The Geneva Convention has to be revised and in the meanwhile not followed. Rumsfeld is right.
Dominique, USA

We must consider that the Taleban regime was the only regime in power in Afghanistan

Nicholas Eyre, Italy
Of course the Taleban prisoners should be granted POW status. We must consider that the Taleban regime was the only regime in power in Afghanistan and were in their full rights to defend their country. On the contrary any confirmed members of Al-Qaeda are clearly part of a terrorist group and consequently their status is debatable but probably leaning to a non POW status.
Nicholas Eyre, Italy

Surely the burden of proof, for non-POW status as well as for whatever crimes they've allegedly committed, is on the USA? They should be treated as POWs until some formal review board decides, on a case by case basis, if they qualify. That, I gather, is how the system for these things usually works. So why not this time?
J White, UK

Contrary to what many people have said over the past few weeks you CAN interrogate POWs. The Geneva convention prohibits using torture or the threat of torture to obtain information but does not prohibit interrogation per se.
Mark, U.K.

I've little sympathy for the detainees of this camp, but I find the way the Americans are treating them to be deeply disturbing. From the outset, the USA and it's allies took the moral high ground, and spoke in terms of a 'war on behalf of civilisation' against an evil Taliban regime who had no respect for human rights. Surely now they've won, America should be bending over backwards to treat (and be seen to treat) all captured enemy soldiers in accordance with the Geneva convention, even if they don't technically qualify as POW's.
Andy, UK

There is absolutely no evidence that the detainees are being mistreated in any way, let alone 'tortured'.

Michael Entill, UK
I cannot see what all the fuss is about. There is absolutely no evidence that the detainees are being mistreated in any way, let alone 'tortured'. They are not POWs even by the terms of the Geneva Convention, which states that captives should be accorded POW statement if they are wearing a uniform, holding unconcealed weapons and fighting for a recognised national government. The detainees do not fit this description. The conditions they are being kept in are not comfortable but they are perfectly humane and on a par with conditions in the high security wings of prisons throughout the West. This whole 'scandal' is just more vile anti-Americanism manifesting itself.
Michael Entill, UK

I don't understand the arguments that just because the USA declared a "War on Terrorism" that the terrorists are PoWs, does that mean that drug dealers arrested during a "War on Drugs" are also PoWs? The only prisoners who can be considered PoWs are the Taliban - actual soldiers fighting for their country, the members of al-Qaeda are terrorists which makes them criminals and not PoWs.
Mark, UK

Once again, the general public displays an astounding lack of comprehension about the Geneva Conventions and the realities of war. First, the Conventions were merely a written record of the evolution of warfare up to the point when they were written. They do not take into account the rise of terrorist activities and the structure and methods of terrorist organisations. Just as the Conventions are a record of the evolution of POW treatment UP TO 1946, we must be willing to adapt our treatment further in the future as necessary in the ever-changing face of warfare. To wait for a lumbering international body to do this would be counterproductive and mean valuable time lost in interrogating current suspects. The US is forced to act unilaterally until the rest of civilisation catches up to them.

Second, the Conventions allow for the existence of unlawful combatants - those that do not bear insignia, fight openly, or follow a recognised chain of command. The relevance of this to al-Qaeda is obvious; additionally, the Taliban were not a recognised army of a recognised government; even the UN refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of this militia occupying the land of the Afghanis. Unlawful combatants are not granted POW rights under the Conventions.

Third, regardless of their non-POW status, the US is STILL providing not only humane treatment, but conditions better than many US soldiers have recently experienced in Afghanistan for weeks on end. Liberals, please, put your innate jealously and distrust of the Americans behind you and at least attempt to think rationally about the situation.
Michael, UK

They're one of three things:
1. Prisoners of war - in which case they should be protected by the Geneva Convention
2. Common criminals under American law - so they should get judge and jury, right to remain silent etc
3. War criminals - in which case they should be tried at the Hague
"Unlawful combatant" is meaningless both legally and morally.
Charles Moore, Scotland

The Taleban never signed the Geneva Convention

Guy Hammond, England
The fact is, the Taleban never signed the Geneva Convention, and did not respect it when they took prisoners of their own. Further, their soldiers did not wear uniforms, were not acting on behalf of a government recognized by the UN, nor was war officially declared. Therefore, the Geneva Convention simply does not apply here.
Guy Hammond, England

Now the US defence secretary claims that these men are not POW's because they do not adhere to his western perception of a professional Army. The fact they do not wear uniforms does have relevance in combat in one situation. Our own SAS when conducting insurgent operations do not wear uniforms, nor do they in their more conventional role wear Rank or Insignia. When out of uniform they risk the sentence of death under the Geneva convention. However these men were sponsored by the Government of Afghanistan, and as such were not in a foreign land. The British Army itself uses foreign troops in the Ghurkha regiments. Whether or not this was a legal regime is not relevant, and certainly not for one side to decide when they were involved as combatants. This issue must be decided upon by a neutral power.
Leo Siddall, London, United Kingdom

Is the US Reporter seized and held hostage in Pakistan going to be granted POW status? How humane will his living conditions be? Can he expect fresh air, sunshine, three squares a day, and religious expression? The bottom line is this: the arrangements on Guantanamo are TEMPORARY. Do you expect the US to put these guys up in the Ritz Carlton until a suitable prison can be built to house them? Or perhaps you think that they'd be better off in that lovely prison in Mazar e Sharif where they rioted because of a lack of food and medical care. Doesn't the recent hostage situation at the hospital in Kandahar tell you just how dangerous handling these guys is? I'm certain if Al-Qaeda rammed a plane into Buckingham Palace or British Parliament the cries for treating them 'humane' would cease from our friends across the pond.
Paul A. Lux, Crestview, Florida, USA

Whatever their status, they will not be tortured,

Dan, New York
Much ado about nothing. I agree that the US should classify these detainees as prisoners of war, if for no other reason then to satisfy the international community and to protect the welfare of future American POWs. Whatever their status, they will not be tortured, they will receive excellent medical care, they will be fed, and they will remain accessible for the all the leading humanitarian organizations to observe. Ultimately, the vast majority will be released and allowed to return home.
Dan, New York, NY USA

I think most of the posters here need to familiarize themselves with the definition of a legitimate combatant according to the Geneva Convention. The members of al-Qaeda are terrorists, they were in Afghanistan training in techniques that would allow them to inflict the maximum casualties in a civilian attack. These are not the people the Geneva Conventions were designed to protect.
Dave, USA

If we decide not to call the Taliban fighters captured prisoners of war just because we dont like them then its really pointless in having a Geneva Convention. After all its very unlikely that two friendly nations who like and trussed each other are going to go to war just for the hell of it.
Ziz, UK

We lose the game if we don't play by the rules.

John Adlington, UK
I find it strange that these guys are described as "illegal combatants" presumably because they were non-Afghan nationals fighting in Afghanistan. These men were invited by the Taleban regime to fight for them just as the Americans were invited by the Northern Alliance to fight for them, though I suspect they invited themselves. Where is the difference? If an American soldier had been captured by the Taleban surely they would expect that that prisoner was treated as a prisoner of war and afforded the protection that status is due. We lose the game if we don't play by the rules.
John Adlington, UK

I agree with Karel that a new status should be accorded these prisoners. I don't care what we call them and I don't believe they are being treated inhumanely, but there is certainly nothing wrong with recognizing that they don't fit neatly into any of our existing categories and collaborating with other nations to define new standards more appropriate to the current situation. I would insist, however, that these standards provide an acceptable level of security. I can't believe that anyone would consider the measures taken to quell the prisoner uprisings in Afghanistan to be more humane than those taken to ensure security at Camp X-Ray.
Deb, USA

The POW status is not for these terrorists. They are not member of a legitimate army. They should be considered like pirates. Perhaps a new status should be developed, so that these people will remain outlawed.
Karel Postulart, The Netherlands

No! They are not prisoners of war. They are terrorists and should be treated accordingly. Furthermore any British 'subject' who has fought against the country should be tried for treason and in found guilty hanged! Treason is the only law that exists in this country that holds the penalty of death - If you cannot be loyal to your country, then hang!
David Warburton, UK

The reason for the US not wishing to give POW status to these people is almost certainly because they want to retain the right to interrogate them in the hope of gaining more information on al-Qaeda.
Given the nature of the conflict in which they have been involved and of the events which triggered it this seems perfectly acceptable to me. The US authorities are investigating acts of international terrorism which lie far outside the normal conduct of war. Other aspects of their treatment should remain in line with the standards established for POWs provided these are compatible with the safety of those guarding them.
Steve Harrison, UK

It seems rather rich to call the American offensive "War Against Terrorism" and then not call your captives prisoners of that war

Bob, UK
It seems rather rich to call the American offensive "War Against Terrorism" and then not call your captives prisoners of that war.
If the al-Qaeda prisoners don't belong to an army or wear uniforms, what exactly are they to be charged with? Disagreeing with American foreign policy, wearing a beard and carrying a gun? I know a lot of Americans that would fit that bill.
Bob, UK

If the September the 11th attacks on America were said to be "an attack on us all". Why does America want to be seen as Judge, Jury and Executioner? Surely the best thing would be to hand over the prisoners to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague or, at the very least, the United Nations...
S. Liddle, Great Britain

If they are not prisoners of war, are there laws in the American justice system that allow non-American nationals committing murders against non-American nationals on non-American soil to be judged by an American court?
Pascal Jacquemain, UK (French)

It was the USA that decided to declare a "war" on terrorism, so it could decide to act with great magnanimity, and show the prisoners a level of respect that they probably don't deserve. This would no doubt impress on the international stage, but I think other considerations are more important to the Bush administration. The American public seems to have a voracious appetite when it comes to seeing wrongdoers punished, and the President himself is well known for pandering to this particular trait.
Jon, Basingstoke, UK

Of course they should be given POW status. What else do you call people captured in a war?!?
Fikry, USA

The US must act within the laws of the Geneva Convention, otherwise, I fear the sympathy the world had for them will diminish

Rob Morris, UK
I wholeheartedly support the fight against terrorism and the stance that our Government has taken on this issue. I do not, however, think the US are justified in their treatment of these Prisoners of War. Yes, we were all horrified at the September 11th outrage, but it seems the US are getting a little over emotional about how they bring terrorists to justice. They must act within the laws of the Geneva Convention, otherwise, I fear the sympathy the world had for them will diminish, if it has already. Treat these Prisoners of War properly!
Rob Morris, UK

I do not know what the Geneva Convention entails. But as humans let us treat them as fellow human beings. Let us not stoop down to treating them like zoo animals.
Amit, India

In response to Amit from India, those detainees in the camps are not being treated as zoo animals. They are given three meals a day, shelter, and there religious needs are taken care of. They are receiving better care than in their own countries, at least they know when there next meal in coming. For the safety of OUR troops we must keep the people separated, they are dangerous and could plot an escape or even worse. If it was your countries I am sure you would support the actions of your troops. I would also like to add if they caught our soldiers, you know as well as I do they wouldn't be so merciful!
Dain, Washington DC, USA

Are they prisoners of war?



13938 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

The loya jirga


Unfinished conflict

Rebuilding the country



See also:

27 Jan 02 | Americas
No POW rights for Cuba prisoners
28 Dec 01 | Americas
Destination Guantanamo Bay
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