Initial Call to Action — by Dennis Rivers, MA
Dedicated to three of my teachers
Joanna Macy, Gene Knudsen Hoffman
and the late Walter Capps
Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies…
This is not the action
of the America
I grew up to believe in.
It’s a very human attitude to imagine that laws, treaties and constitutions, once passed, will simply enforce themselves, without strenuous effort on our part. But experience shows otherwise. Experience shows that the passing of a bill or the signing of a treaty is not the end of the journey, but only the beginning. Over the past century, people of goodwill around the world have sought to limit the violence of war by entering into various Geneva Convention Treaties. But although we can receive the concepts of the Geneva Conventions from previous generations, we cannot inherit as passive beneficiaries the actual benefits of these treaties. If the Geneva Conventions (and the U.S. Constitution, for that matter) are going to mean anything in our time, it will be because we campaign actively for their study, observance and enforcement in our time. They are more like a handful of seeds than a handful of diamonds.
The Geneva Conventions are far from perfect and far from effective, but there are pressing reasons why we should continue their development and implementation. For example, it is widely estimated that 90% of the casualties in modern wars are civilians. In relation to the treatment of captives, both the Bush and Obama administrations have been determined to find clever ways around the Geneva Conventions, in order to allow the practice of torture in far off places beyond the reach of the press or the Red Cross. The US practice of torture went through a process of “linguistic cleansing” during the Bush administration and is now referred to as “alternative procedures.” The technology of war has also dramatically changed since the first Geneva Conventions were framed. For example, the current use of depleted uranium anti-tank munitions constitutes a low-level atomic war on civilians that will go on for many generations. The toxic, radioactive dust left behind by the explosion of depleted uranium will stay toxic and radioactive for several billion years. A billion years is a long time to give cancer and birth defects to the inhabitants of a particular region, something the framers of the original Geneva Conventions could hardly have imagined. This poison dust will eventually circulate around the world, and our descendants, to some unknown degree, will suffer the same fate as the descendants of our enemies.
Confronted with these unhappy facts, reason and compassion suggest that we take up a new advocacy of the Geneva Conventions. Each citizen can sign a personal statement affirming the Geneva Conventions, and can send such statements to their elected representatives requesting that their representatives make every possible effort to uphold, and extend the scope of, the Geneva Conventions. We can also ask each candidate for federal public office to support the letter and the spirit of Geneva Conventions as part of their campaign for election.
The treaties that the United States enters into become part of the law of the United States. The Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that in Geneva Conventions are part of the law of the United States. Therefore it is appropriate for every high school and college student in the United States to be introduced to the Geneva Conventions, to study them, and to reach their own conclusions about how the spirit of the Geneva Conventions will be carried forward in our particular time. If we do not persuade new generations to take up this cause, the cause will be lost.
The Citizens’ Interfaith Coalition to Reaffirm and Extend the Geneva Conventions is developing an educational web site to distribute statements of reaffirmation and study guides. We will also be inviting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and civic groups of every sort to take up consideration of the Geneva Conventions, and to pass resolutions of reaffirmation as part of a global effort to both limit the violence of modern war and introduce new forms of conflict resolution.
The idea of extending the Geneva Conventions is important because regulating the conduct of war can easily be taken to imply acceptance of war as a legitimate policy option of nations and aggrieved groups. The truth is that wars, along with being extraordinarily cruel, are almost always the product of deep confusions and lack of skills, but no one wants to admit that “we had this war because we did not know what was going on and no on on our side was very good at negotiating.” (If you doubt that wars ever start due to lack of skill on the part of the adversaries, please explain the compelling reason why at least 20 million people had to die in World War I.) There is now much more material available about non-violent and creative conflict resolution practices than was the case even as recently as the Vietnam war. Advocacy to restrain the conduct of war will only make sense to many people if it is immediately accompanied by new information about alternatives to war.
Along with a reaffirmation of the existing provisions against torture and the maltreatment of prisoners (which you can read at www.genevaconventions.org), and a ban on depleted uranium munitions, one of various needed extensions of the Geneva Conventions would be a strong “no evidence based on torture or coercion” principle. Anyone who reads the news carefully will notice how quickly the torture idea is spreading. Just two years ago it was all about “the ticking bomb” scenario in which we needed to torture suspects in order to interrupt a bombing plot already underway. But now the Bush administration proposes to use coerced evidence in some sort of quasi-judicial hearings with the intention of executing people, or at least keeping them locked up indefinitely — a different and much larger goal than the immediate prevention of a bombing already launched. In a court that admits coerced evidence, a person might be imprisoned for confessing to whatever sympathies or activities he or she thought would stop the torture. Since “sympathizing with the enemy” could become a crime in itself, or a mark of being dangerous, there would be no facts that needed to be checked in order to justify incarceration or execution.
If you think this sounds far-fetched, consider that John Ashcroft, during his tenure as Attorney General of the United States, asserted in U.S. Senate hearings that all those who publicly questioned the wisdom of government plans to spy on US citizens “aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve,” alluding indirectly to the definition of treason in the Constitution. This is exactly the sort of thought-crime for which one could be arrested in various dictatorships, past and present. The senators were spared prison and the rack, but we know for a fact that others, less privileged, were not. In Afghanistan, Mr. Dilawar and Mr. Habibullah were beaten to death by US troops over a period of several days simply because the troops had vague suspicions about them, based on false accusations made by a person later revealed to be a double agent. The lesson to be learned here is that interrogation by torture represents punishment without a trial, based on suspicion rather than evidence, in which the process of accusing becomes the process of convicting. Following in this direction will surely lead us toward the horrific injustices of the Middle Ages, Colonial witch trials and Soviet purges of the 1930s. How many innocents will have to be tortured as our security services search for the true terrorists? Thousands? Millions? And how will we live with the knowledge of what we have allowed? A newly affirmed global ban on both the process (coercive interrogation) and the product (coerced evidence) would help us step back from this moral abyss.
The United States is going through a difficult period right now, politically, psychologically and spiritually. The careful, systematic and compassionate advocacy of the Geneva Conventions would help people regain their emotional equilibrium and long-term perspective, and help people to resist the seductive appeals of fear, war and revenge.
We invite you to join us in these efforts and to send any web site references, educational materials or personal statements on the above topics to the address shown below. Also, please visit our evolving web site: www.SupportGenevaConventions.info which will be adding many new features and references over the next few months.
133 E. De la Guerra St. #423
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Citizens’ Interfaith Coalition to Reaffirm and Extend the Geneva Conventions
Dennis Rivers, Acting Secretary