Blaming The Messenger

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This column was written by Ari Berman.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned the Bush Administration about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, secret detainees in Afghanistan and the now-confirmed allegations of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay. So naturally, Republicans are ignoring the findings and blaming the messenger.

A new report by Senate Republicans lumps the 140-year-old, three-time Nobel Peace Prize recipient into the "anti-American" category and calls on the Bush Administration to reassess its funding support. "The ICRC is no longer an impartial and trustworthy guardian," writes the Senate Republican Policy Committee. "It has become yet another clamoring interest group" that has "lost its way" by adopting positions that are in "direct opposition to the advancement of US interests." The report warns, with no hint of irony, that ICRC actions threaten to "sap its credibility."

Senate Republicans thus duly prescribe the full UN-treatment: a comprehensive review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to determine whether the annual US contribution ($1.5 billion since 1990) is advancing American interests and a GAO audit of the ICRC's core and non-core activities. The crimes committed by the ICRC, in Republican eyes, include such ghastly activities as upholding the Geneva Convention and lobbying for the Chemical Weapons Convention and the treaty against landmines. How the group's actions in Iraq or Afghanistan violate the ICRC's founding principles of neutrality and impartiality is anyone's guess. "The paper's purpose appears to be to discredit the ICRC by putting forward false allegations and unsubstantiated accusations," ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said last week.

"In fact," writes University of Virginia law professor Rosa Brooks, "the real issue underlying the attack is that the ICRC has quietly but firmly pushed back against the Bush Administration's 'anything goes' detention and interrogation policies." Confidential criticisms of ghost detainees, open-ended detentions and the rendition of suspected terrorists to countries employing torture are hardly unique to the ICRC. Anyone outside of Donald Rumsfeld's office, including White House officials who've defended the organization against the Senate report, know that ICRC monitoring helps the American military far more than it hurts.

"For US military commanders, the ICRC is crucial as their feedback loop," says Ruth Wedgwood, an international law expert at Johns Hopkins University. "That's how a commander knows what's happening down in their ranks — even on the night shift. We really do need that function. That's why we pay them a lot of money — not just to assist on tsunamis."

The chickenhawk choir in Congress could clearly use a history lesson, and preferably some combat action.
By Ari Berman
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation