Saddam's detention must follow the rules

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 January, 2004, 12:00am

The tentative admission by the Pentagon this weekend that Saddam Hussein has been classified as a prisoner of war might be seen as a case of stating the obvious. The Iraqi dictator was, after all, driven into hiding by the US-led military invasion of his country and the defeat of the armed forces over which he held ultimate command.

But given the way in which the US has played fast and loose with international law during its war against terror, the affording of any status at all to Hussein is a welcome sign of at least some commitment to play by the rules.

Since his much-celebrated capture last month, the humbled tyrant has been held in an undisclosed US military base where he has been interrogated by the CIA. Little is known about the conditions in which he is being held or the methods adopted in an attempt to extract information from him. Reports suggest he remains characteristically defiant and is refusing to co-operate.

The significance of Hussein being afforded prisoner of war status must be considered with caution. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said he knows of no formal declaration to this effect, and it appears that any legal classification of Hussein's position is open to change. The Pentagon statements, however, do at least give him some kind of standing - something the US has not been prepared to do for those captured in the war in Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo Bay.

However, as a prisoner of war, Hussein is entitled to be treated in accordance with the standards set out in the Geneva Conventions. This means he has the right not to be subjected to pressure while being interrogated and to be protected from violence, intimidation and insults. He cannot be required to provide information that goes beyond revealing his identity. Interestingly, he is also entitled to be protected from public curiosity, a provision that may have already been breached by the broadcasting of pictures showing the ex-dictator undergoing a medical examination after his capture. And visits by the International Red Cross, provided for by the conventions, have not yet been permitted.

There may be some who feel that Hussein does not deserve such protection, given the brutality with which he ruled Iraq and the atrocities he committed. Certainly, prisoners held by Hussein's regime would not have been afforded such rights. But it is of vital importance that those responsible for rebuilding the nation do not stoop to the former leader's methods.

If this difficult process is to have any credibility, and therefore any chance of succeeding, the highest international standards must be applied. This should apply not only to the conditions in which Hussein is held in custody, but also to his future trial.