When is a prisoner of war not a prisoner of war? Should Canada hand over Taliban and Al Qaeda captives to the United States? Why do the human rights of alleged terrorists matter at all?

To clarify the human rights issues involved in Guantanamo Bay and to debunk some of the myths of the war on terrorism, I went straight to an expert: Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.

The highly respected human rights watchdog group takes a strictly non-partisan approach, challenging abuses in dictatorships as well as democracies, and advocating basic human rights for everyone — from refugees and ethnic minorities to faith groups and political organizations to freedom fighters and criminals.

Myth: The Geneva Conventions are out of date and don’t adequately address new realities of war — and, therefore, can be disregarded.
Reality: “The Geneva Conventions are fifty years old and it’s true that new weapons, new causes and new ways of fighting have arisen,” Neve says. “However, in the 1970s, amendments were made to update the conventions — amendments, I should point out, that the U.S. has not signed.”

“So it’s disingenuous for anyone in Canada or the U.S to now suggest that the conventions are irrelevant and shouldn’t apply to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. If they are out of date, the solution should be to amend them, not ignore them. Can you imagine if that argument was used domestically? If someone said they could break the law because they felt the Criminal Code was irrelevant?”

Myth: The Bush administration says that designating the captives in Guantanamo Bay as prisoners of war would set a dangerous precedent, allowing criminals and terrorists to escape prosecution.
Reality: “In no way do the Geneva Conventions shield people from prosecution, in fact, they are insistent that people who commit illegal acts be brought to justice,” Neve says.

“The term ‘illegal combatant’ does not exist in Geneva law. Anyone captured during an armed conflict should be assumed to be a prisoner of war and designated as such unless evidence indicates otherwise, but that’s a decision that lies in the hands of a competent legal tribunal.”

“If they are not prisoners of war, but are instead suspected of committing illegal acts, then they should be charged. Right now it appears that the men in Guantanamo Bay are being held in legal limbo. The U.S. must either designate them as prisoners of war, or lay criminal charges, otherwise there is no legal ground for them to continue to be held.

“Another big concern is that international law relies upon reciprocity. Nations will be dealt with as they deal with other nations. By not treating its prisoners according to international law, the U.S. — and now Canada — is putting its own soldiers at risk in future conflicts. What will happen to them if they get captured?”

Myth: Human rights groups are suggesting the world should be soft on terrorism.
Reality: “Our interest in protecting the human rights of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and our concerns about possible U.S. breaches of international law, in no way excuses or belittles what happened on September 11, nor does it in any way suggest that the U.S. was at fault,” Neve says. “We believe anyone who commits criminal acts or violates human rights should face justice.”

“In fact, we having been speaking out against Osama bin Laden, the unchecked weapons buildup in the region, and the Taliban’s human rights abuses for years and nothing was done. From the beginning, we have asserted that the September 11 attacks are a devastating abuse of the most vital human right of all. We absolutely believe the people responsible must be brought to justice.

Amnesty International doesn’t take a position on armed conflict and we’re not saying the U.S.’s response shouldn’t have involved armed conflict. But we do urge that military action be a last resort and insist that any armed conflict must pay scrupulous attention to international law.”

Myth: In order to protect people, some human rights and civil liberties will have to be violated.
Reality: “We really try to stress the message that it’s not security versus human rights, but security and human rights,” Neve says. “There can be no true security when human rights are disregarded, that will only perpetuate the cycle of fear and violence.”

“Especially when dealing with opposing forces like Al Qaeda and the Taliban that have a horrible track record on human rights, it’s all the more important for any response to affirm human rights, not erode them.”

For more information, check out Amnesty International’s website