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White House Says Geneva Conventions Will Apply to Taliban Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay

Aired February 7, 2002 - 13:39   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: I want to take you back to the White House folks. We are about to get an announcemnt here.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Consistent with American values and the principles of the Geneva Convention, the United States has treated and will continue to treat all Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees in Guantanamo Bay humanely and consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention.

They will continue to receive three appropriate meals a day, excellent medical care, clothing, shelter, showers and the opportunity to worship. The international community of the Red Cross can visit each detainee privately.

In addition, President Bush today has decided that the Geneva Convention will apply to the Taliban detainees, but not to the Al Qaeda international terrorists.

Afghanistan is a party of the Geneva Convention. Although the United States does not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate Afghani government, the president determined that the Taliban members are covered under the treaty because Afghanistan is a party to the convention.

Under Article IV of the Geneva Convention, however, Taliban detainees are not entitled to POW status.

To qualify as POWs under Article IV, Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees would have to have satisfied four conditions: They would have to be part of a military hierarchy. They would have to have worn uniforms or other distinctive signs visible at a distance. They would have to have carried arms openly. And they would have had to have conducted their military operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

The Taliban have not effectively distinguished themselves from the civilian population of Afghanistan. Moreover, they have not conducted their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Instead, they have knowingly adopted and provided support for the unlawful terrorist objectives of the Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is an international terrorist group and cannot be considered a state party to the Geneva Convention. Its members, therefore, are not covered by the Geneva Convention and are not entitled to POW status under the treaty.

The war on terrorism is a war not envisaged when the Geneva Convention was signed in 1949. In this war, global terrorists transcend national boundaries and internationally target the innocent.

The president has maintained the United States commitment to the principles of the Geneva Convention while recognizing that the convention simply does not cover every situation in which people may be captured or detained by military forces, as we see in Afghanistan today.

He arrived at a just, principled and practical solution to a difficult issue. The president did so because, as Americans, the way we treat people is a reflection of America's values. The military operates under a code of conduct that upholds these values, based on the dignity of every individual. The American people can take great pride in the way our military is treating these dangerous detainees.

The convention remains as important today as it was the day it was signed, and the United States is proud of its 50-year history in compliance with the convention.

QUESTION: Given that you said the president long ago determined that none of these folks were prisoners of -- none of these fighters were prisoners of war, how, if at all, does it change the way the Taliban and, then separately, Al Qaeda fighters, will be treated at Guantanamo Bay?

And tell me how this might help protect U.S. forces if they happen to be captured in Afghanistan.

FLEISCHER: What this announcement signifies is the president's dedication to the importance of the Geneva Convention and to the principles that the Geneva Convention holds.

In terms of the treatment of the prisoners, even though the president has determined that they will not be treated legally as prisoners of war, they will be afforded every courtesy and every value that this nation applies to treating people well while they're in our custody.

So it will not change their material life on a day-to-day basis. They will continue to be treated well, because that's what the United States does.

QUESTION: Then why do this? Is it because of the second part of the question?

FLEISCHER: It's because of the first answer I gave, which is because the president believes in the principles and in the law of the Geneva Convention. He believes in its applicability. He believes in its importance. He believes that it plays a role, even in today's modern world, where the applicability gets somewhat more complicated as a result of an international terrorist organization that doesn't wear uniforms or insignias. QUESTION: So, Ari, what you're telling is that the Taliban prisoners, detainees, at Guantanamo will not get any more protections than they already are given under the Geneva Convention. What you seem to be telling is that the Al Qaeda detainees will get fewer.

FLEISCHER: No. There is no change in the protections they will be provided. They have always been treated consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention, which means they will be treated well.

If you're looking for anything that will not happen, as a result of this announcement, it is that they will not receive stipends from the American taxpayers. They will not receive musical instruments, courtesy of the United States military. They would have received those had they been declared POWs.

QUESTION: That's true of the Taliban, too, right?


QUESTION: So what is the difference? How will the Al Qaeda and the Taliban detainees be treated differently?

FLEISCHER: What the president is saying here is, there's an important legal principle recognizing that Afghanistan is a member- state that agreed to the terms of the Geneva Convention. So the president is making distinction between the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But when it comes to the classification as POWs, neither group will be given POW legal designation, although they will continue to be treated humanely and in accordance with America's values, which are reflected in the convention.

QUESTION: Just tell me the difference in how they're treated. Is there any difference in how they're treated?

FLEISCHER: That's what we've been saying all along, that they'll continue to be treated well because they are in the custody of America.

QUESTION: Al Qaeda and Taliban will be treated...

FLEISCHER: No distinction will be made in the good treatment given to the Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

QUESTION: It's a distinction without a different (inaudible).

FLEISCHER: It's a distinction based on the legal principle that the president believes in the Geneva Convention and its important principles.

QUESTION: I have to say that, Ari, that day-to-day, nothing is going to change that will be noticeable for these detainees. That's correct, right?

FLEISCHER: They will continue to be treated well, no change in that treatment.

QUESTION: So applying the Convention here is being done solely to protect U.S. citizens and U.S. soldiers who may be in a situation overseas held by a foreign government? Is that correct? I mean, is that the principle that's being upheld?

FLEISCHER: No, the principle is that this country and this president, of course, believe in and adhere to the Geneva Convention.

In any case, the United States would always be covered by the Geneva Convention, our military, because, as I've mentioned, under Article IV, you have to wear a uniform, you have to wear an insignia, carry your weapons outside, be distinguishable from the civilian population, all of which covers our military.

QUESTION: The concern, the debate here was about, if you don't do it here, then U.S. soldiers could be mistreated abroad. Isn't that correct? And so, isn't that a big motivation here, to make sure that U.S. soldiers get the same kind of treatment?

FLEISCHER: It's important for all nations throughout the world to treat any prisoners well, and that is something the United States always expects and the United States always does.

We have time for one more question, and then there's a pool...


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) responsive to the specific point. Wasn't this an important concern?

I understand what the expectations are, but it is important for this administration to be able to say, look, "We want a field to protect our soldiers in similar situations down the line. And if we don't afford privileges under the Geneva Convention, then our soldiers could be in peril."

FLEISCHER: I was not in the NSC deliberations where various issues were raised. And so really, there's no way I can accurately answer that question.

QUESTION: What if U.S. Special Forces -- they often do not wear uniforms, they often do not carry their weapons outwardly. If they are captured, they wouldn't be prisoners of war?

FLEISCHER: The terms of the Geneva Convention apply to all, and those terms speak for themselves.

OK, thank you everybody.

HARRIS: And with that, Ari Fleischer wraps up the White House press briefing part two. Barely 40 minutes, or 30 minutes or so after he had come out and told reporters that the White House had not made a decision yet, or would not confirm that a decision had been made yet about whether or not to consider all the detainees on Guantanamo Bay as being there in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and should therefore be treated as such. He now comes out and changes that, and says the White House decided the Geneva Convention will apply to those detainees.

Let's check in now with our Kelly Wallace, who's been listening in as well -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, you heard reporters asking really what does this mean, what is the significance here? And you heard Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman saying, that the treatment of these detainees will remain the same, and also, that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda fighters will not be classified as prisoners of war, or POWs.

So you know, you heard the reporters asking, so really what does this mean? What it does do, is it does do a couple of things. Clearly, it could put off some criticism. You heard criticism around the world really from even -- from some U.S. allies about the administration's position, calling on the United States to make the case that the Geneva Convention should apply also when it comes, you heard reporters mentioning there, to American soldiers overseas, if they're captures to be sure another country honors the Geneva Conventions.

Clearly Ari Fleischer saying the president says that Afghanistan clearly is party to the treaty, the treaty signed back in 1949, and that's why the president decided that the Taliban fighters should get this designation under the Geneva Conventions, but not the Al Qaeda operatives.

As for, you know, will there be any additional rights for these Taliban fighters, you know, we have all, reporters, been going through this for the past couple of weeks. We believe that the Taliban fighters, since the Geneva Conventions will apply to them, they might be able to appeal their status as unlawful combatants and try to maybe make the case to become prisoners of war. But clearly, no treatment change for those detainees.

And you know, there was a lot of debate within the administration about this, Leon. Secretary of State Colin Powell was really one pushing the administration to consider to have the Geneva Conventions apply, and it will do a lot, certainly send a message to international community and potentially protect American soldiers oversees. But the bottom line from Ari Fleischer, the treatment of these detainees won't change. Their rights really won't change. Status quo really, but obviously president allying the legal principle in this case -- Leon.

HARRIS: You know, Kelly, one thing occurs to me, one other thing in the conventions that holds you can't interrogate any prisoners. That is already been a process that all of these detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been through. They have been through quite extensive interrogations. Now it seems as though we are making this distinction, by saying, OK, we will treat them in accordance with the Geneva Convention after they have gotten as much intelligence out of them as they could possibly get now.

WALLACE: Now this is case where I wish I went to law school, because this is the question we have all been sort of grappling with. It's just not clear to me actually as a reporter if the Geneva Convention applies, but the detainee is still not designated as a prisoner of war, if that right still applies -- the right to not take part in interrogation, and just give your name, rank, serial number. If you are not a POW, but an unlawful combatant, but the Geneva Convention applies, and you are entitled to that right. We are trying to get an answer to it, and we certainly will. It is really unclear with the distinction here they are not POWs, but are these unlawful combatants, but the Geneva Convention applies, do they get these same rights? I don't have the answer.

HARRIS: Doesn't matter now. It's almost a moot point, since the interrogations have been conducted.

WALLACE: But it will apply to future cases, when more detainees are shipped to Guantanamo Bay.

HARRIS: You got it. Let me ask you about something else, and turn the corner here and switch topics for a moment if we can. As we understand it, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, is also going to be making a stop there at the White House later this afternoon, within a matter of hours from now. And we understand there is also report reports of more violence there in Nablus. The Israelis have gone ahead and made a missile attack on some Palestinian Authority buildings there.

What is the thinking there about what is going to happen with these talks between Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush today? Is there any chance something will be accomplished here or what?

WALLACE: Well, you know, clearly from the perspective of the Bush administration, U.S. officials will say it is a sign to show that the administration is remaining engaged in the region. It's no secret Ariel Sharon has made the case he believes the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is irrelevant, and is really calling on the administration to boycott Arafat and sever ties with him. The administration we know has been considering a series of options to deal with the Palestinian Authority, options including severing ties with the Palestinian Authority.

But the message we are really getting from secretary of state yesterday, from Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman today, is that U.S. is going to remain engaged with the Palestinians. The secretary of state talked with Palestinian negotiators early this week.

At the same time, Leon, you will hear the president likely in his meeting later today to continue to put the onus on Mr. Arafat to do more, to crack down on terrorism, to provide an explanation about that armed shipment. We saw that shipment of 50 tons of weapons and explosives believed to be headed from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, intercepted by Israel. But we're also going to hear something else, Leon, here the president expressing concern for the Palestinian people. Ari Fleischer saying earlier today that the president will call on Mr. Sharon to ease some travel and economic restrictions, some hardships that the Palestinian people have been encountering, as the 16-month standoff, the fighting has been going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

So likely to have more tough talk from Mr. Arafat and an appeal to Mr. Sharon as well -- Leon.

HARRIS: Thank you very much, Kelly. Nice job as usual.

Kelly Wallace there at the White House.




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