Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Witness

It was in England, my country of birth, back in the seventeenth century, that the principle of habeas corpus was first codified. This writ demands that any individual under arrest be taken to a court of law. Historically, it has served as a bulwark against unlawful or arbitrary state detention. The insistence that a detainee must be informed of the charges held against him, brought to a legitimate court within a reasonable timeframe, and granted the immediate right to advocacy, embellishes further what is arguably the most virtuous legal principle ever to spring forth from the human mind. Neither freedom nor humanity can exist without it.

In 1929, the Third Geneva Convention, relative to Treatment of Prisoners of War, was ratified worldwide. This, too, embodies the noblest of man-made values. A civilized basis for war might seem oxymoronic, bizarre even, but the ruling that even the most hellish forms of organized physical violence must be conducted with restraint is another proud milestone in human social evolution.

Almost twenty years ago to the day, I visited Kanchanaburi, a rural outpost of Western Thailand. It is famous – or rather, infamous – for being the site where, in 1942, Allied prisoners of war were forced, by savage Japanese (and Korean) captors, to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai (Figure 70.1). While there, I walked across that same bridge, alone, and contemplated its history which I had taken the time to learn (Figure 70.2). Tens of thousands of prisoners had died from disease, torture and other acts of indescribable inhumanity (Figure 70.3). Survivors returned home emotionally ruined.


Figure 70.1: Opened in 1977, the JEATH Museum, at Kanchanaburi, commemorates the human tragedy of the Death Railway.

Copyright © 1994 Paul Spradbery


Figure 70.2: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Copyright © 1994 Paul Spradbery


Figure 70.3: Allied war graves at Chong Kai Cemetery are lovingly tended on a daily basis by local people, young and old.

Copyright © 1994 Paul Spradbery

Harrowing tales of the ‘Death Railway’ were immortalized in the Oscar-winning 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle (1912-1994). I watched it (on videotape) after my trip. Near the beginning, a Japanese commandant demands that all prisoners work to construct the bridge. A brave British officer, Lt Col Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness (1914-2000), responds by reading to him from a small book of Articles of the Geneva Convention (Figure 70.4), which state that officers are exempt from physical labour. The commandant seizes the book, slaps Nicholson’s face with it and threatens to have him shot. Regardless, the officer puts moral principle before personal safety and stands firm. He is then incarcerated in an iron box, without food or water. This is the only scene in the only film ever to have moved me to tears. The officer’s righteousness and quiet dignity are overwhelming. I have never watched it since.


Figure 70.4: Lt Col Nicholson (right) quotes from the Geneva Convention

Copyright expired

A couple of days ago, I went to see a similar film, Railway Man, at the cinema (Figures 70.5 and 70.6). Starring Colin Firth (Figure 70.7) and Nicole Kidman, it dramatizes the autobiography of Eric Lomax (1919-2012), a (real) British officer brutalized by the Japanese at Kanchanaburi when he was just 22 years old. I shall not spoil the ending, save to say that it offers redemption and hope, as films generally do. Implicit is the assumption that, whereas the Japanese might have resorted to malevolence to achieve their ends, the Allied countries, armed with their simple books of ethical words, were above it.


Figure 70.5: Tickets for ‘The Railway Man’

Copyright © 2014 Odeon Cinemas


Figure 70.6: The official movie poster

Copyright © 2013 Railway Man Pty Ltd, Railway Man Ltd, Screen Queensland Pty Ltd, Screen NSW and Screen Australia


Figure 70.7: Colin Firth, as Eric Lomax, walks along the Kwai Bridge

Copyright © 2013 Railway Man Pty Ltd, Railway Man Ltd, Screen Queensland Pty Ltd, Screen NSW and Screen Australia

Fast forward to the 21st century, in particular post-9/11. After the 2001 terrorist bombings of New York City and Washington, President George Bush Jnr. told the world that it was about the witness the USA at its best.

History will judge Bush’s words and subsequent actions – and so will I. Following the Allied invasion of Iraq in March 2003, whereby American and British leaders lied to their peoples in order to prosecute an illegal war, it transpired that American military personnel had committed despicable violations against prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad. These included sexual abuse, torture, both physical and psychological, and murder. Lt Col Nicholson’s small book of words perished at the same time.

Worse still was the establishment of a US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Here, prisoners taken in Iraq (and Afghanistan, Africa and Southeast Asia) were subjected to calculated forms of torture and degradation (Figure 70.8). As the camp was not, technically, on US soil, due legal process, including 200 writs of habeas corpus, were deviously circumvented. As for the Geneva Convention, the detainees were informed that they did not qualify for any of its protection. It was only in 2008 that the US Supreme Court ruled, under strenuous protest from the Bush administration, that detainees should, belatedly, be granted basic access to the judicial system.


Figure 70.8: History re-enacted, by the United States, at Guantanamo Bay

Copyright © 2002 US Department of Defense

The words of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions once elevated the Allied nations to the highest moral ground. I doubt they will be permitted to reoccupy it any time soon; and nor should they, having relinquished any right to do so.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

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