I am very glad that the US Supreme Court has held that the military commissions for the Guantanamo detainees lack the power to proceed. Accordingly, I find the Australian government’s response disappointing. Alexander Downer told press today that Hicks admitted to training with a murderous, bloody, intolerant and racist terrorist organisation and must stand trial in the US. That may be so. But it strikes me as barbarous that a civilised, democratic country should detain people at will in this way, with no right for a detainee to know what case is put against him. The Australian government should ensure that its citizens are treated fairly when detained in another country, no matter what those citizens have done. Further, I feel that the Australian government should press the American government to allow all detainees fair trials which accord procedural fairness.
Why does it matter? People might say:
- “Why should we care about David Hicks? He is an idiot who got involved with terrorists and he deserves to be punished. Same with the rest of them!”
- “If those guys caught an American solider, they’d kill him and put footage of it on the internet, so this kind of treatment isn’t so bad in comparison.”
- “This is a war on terror, and it’s okay to use extreme measures in those circumstances.”
It is hypocritical to pontificate to other countries that they should follow the rule of law, and then to institute measures which violate the rule of law. I believe that it is important that all persons be treated with a modicum of equality and procedural fairness, no matter what crimes they have committed. People should not be detained “at will” (known in legal circles as habeas corpus). People should have a right to know what crimes they have committed and what evidence is going to be put against them. These are fundamental rights and an important part of the rule of law. It is also important to treat prisoners of war fairly, no matter how badly the other side might behave. It’s not a question of whether the detainees are idiots or nasty people or terrorists, it’s a broader question of principle.
But even adopting a pragmatic point of view rather than standing on principle, such treatment is not going to win America any fans. I read with interest an article by Waleed Aly which said that both the West and the Islamic world were guilty of stereotyping each of the other as fanatical, violent, intolerant and disrespectful towards women, and that these stereotypes arose out of ignorance. Of course, in both groups there are a minority of people who fit the stereotype (and as I was trying to argue in another post, we shouldn’t pretend such people don’t exist on either side) but blanket generalisations about any group of people should be avoided. In fact, Aly said, both groups were equally worried about the rise of terrorism and fanatics, and consequently have more in common than they might realise.
I believe that treating detainees badly will merely ensure that ignorance and misunderstanding are perpetuated, and will give terrorists an excuse to continue behaving badly in return.