US Senate approves rules regulating detainee treatment

Thursday, October 6, 2005

The Capitol in Washington, D.C., seat of the U.S. Senate

The United States Senate approved a proposal that imposes restrictions on the detention, interrogation, and treatment of prisoners held by the US military. The rules prohibit the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in US government custody, regardless of where they are held. The rules also require all US troops to use only interrogation techniques authorized in a new Army field manual, but does not cover techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency. The rules follow alleged revelations of detainee abuse committed by US military and intelligence personnel in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The proposal, sponsored by Senator John McCain, was passed by a 90 to 9 vote, with 46 of the 55 Republicans, including the majority leader Bill Frist joining all 43 Democrats and one independent in favor. The proposal is part of a $440 billion military spending bill.

McCain argued that American soldiers need clarity and "are not served by ambiguity". "We demanded intelligence without ever clearly telling our troops what was permitted and what was forbidden. And then, when things went wrong, we blamed them and we punished them. We have to do better than that," McCain, himself subjected to torture during five years in a Vietcong prison camp, said. McCain was urged to draft clear standards of conduct by Capt. Fishback, of the 82nd Airborne Division who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an open letter to Sen. McCain, [1], Fishback stated that "the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq" and that his efforts to get clarifications from the military leadership on what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees were unsuccessful.

More than two dozen retired senior military officers, including Colin L. Powell and John M. Shalikashvili, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have endorsed the amendment. The measures have also been welcomed by human rights organisations.

Bush administration officials say the legislation would limit the president's authority and flexibility in war. White House spokesman, Scott McClellan called the amendment "unnecessary and duplicative" and added: "If it's presented, then there would be a recommendation of a veto, I believe". If President Bush chooses to veto the bill, it would be first veto since he took office in 2001.

The measure is also expected to face opposition in the House of Representatives, which is also controlled by Republicans.

The Senate's proposal has been welcomed by the human rights group Amnesty International, which describes it as "an important step toward protecting the rights of all human beings by providing clear guidance on humane treatment". In a statement, Amnesty urged the White House to accept the McCain amendment, and repeated its call for an independent investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib.