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Commentary | ROSA BROOKS

Is the Red Cross Red, White and Blue Enough?

June 19, 2005|ROSA BROOKS | Rosa Brooks, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, is writing a regular column for The Times.

Not content with trouncing Amnesty International for its "gulag" gaffe or unleashing John Bolton on Kofi Annan, the Republicans have gone out looking for some more do-gooders to turn into punching bags. Mother Teresa is already dead, so they've had to make do with the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, the neutral, Swiss-based organization that has spent 140 years aiding victims of armed conflicts and monitoring compliance with the Geneva Convention.

On June 13, the Senate's Republican Policy Committee released a report condemning the ICRC. While grudgingly acknowledging the organization's past good deeds, the report insists that the ICRC's activities are now in "direct opposition to the advancement of U.S. interests." The evidence for this: The ICRC allegedly wants to "reinterpret and expand international law," giving terrorists "the same rights" as prisoners of war, and it has "inaccurately and unfairly accuse[d] the U.S. of not adhering to the Geneva Conventions."

Et tu, ICRC? Such ingratitude is particularly galling, the Republicans say, coming from an organization that, as they repeatedly remind us, gets a quarter of its funding from the U.S.

Regrettably, from the perspective of these GOP stalwarts, no one else has (yet) noticed just how sinister the ICRC really is. The report laments that with its sterling reputation as "an impartial organization conducting vital emergency relief," the ICRC "is exerting a very powerful influence ... on how U.S. defense and foreign policy is perceived by other countries."

It's sweet that the Republicans are suddenly so concerned about the U.S. reputation abroad. Unless, of course, that's not really what this is about.

In fact, 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. The ICRC doesn't "denounce," it just "expresses concern." It nit-pickingly insists on citing the actual text of the Geneva Convention in lieu of accepting creative Defense Department phrases like "unlawful combatants," and, still more hurtful to true believers, it never uses the phrase "war on terrorism" without adding a laconic little "so-called."

That's what made the Republican Policy Committee so cross, and that's why it devoted a report full of blatant exaggerations to undermining the ICRC.

The ICRC has consistently chastised the U.S. for keeping an unknown number of "ghost detainees" hidden away from legally mandated monitoring, for its open-ended detentions at Guantanamo Bay, for its "renditions" of detainees to states using torture and for its use of interrogation techniques that themselves border on torture.

Last year, a confidential ICRC report on detention conditions in Iraq was leaked. With its findings of widespread abuses at multiple U.S. facilities, the ICRC report threatened to undermine the administration's Abu Ghraib damage control strategy: Deny, deny and deny, and then when you can't deny any longer insist that all abuses were the result of "bad apples" rather than systemic failings or (oh, no, no, no!) orders from on high.

With the "bad apple" defense now generating hoots of derision, the Republicans are shifting into Phase 2 of the damage control strategy: If you don't like the message, shoot the messenger. And if you can't actually shoot the messenger (under the Geneva Convention, shooting a Red Cross official is a definite no-no), discredit the messenger, preferably by implying anti-American prejudice.

If that doesn't do the trick, you can always threaten them with Phase 3: blackmail. The most ominous aspect of the report on the ICRC is its call for an audit of all ICRC activities to determine whether the organization is "advancing U.S. interests."

If it is determined that the ICRC isn't living up to its stated "principles of neutrality, impartiality and humanity," the report urges Congress to consider slashing the group's funds.

There is one glimmer of hope. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would be involved in the review called for in the report, and everyone knows Rumsfeld is a exceedingly mellow guy when it comes to principles like "impartiality" and "humanity." For instance, to him, treating detainees humanely apparently encompasses "waterboarding."

So perhaps Rumsfeld will be consistent and stick up for the ICRC's right to its own understanding of "impartiality" and "humanity."

Still, if I worked for the ICRC, I'd keep my hand on my wallet.

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