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The Picasso Principle on Iraq and Torture

Posted by stoptorture on February 4th, 2008

On February 5, 2003, exactly five years ago tomorrow, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his speech to the Security Council presenting “evidence” designed to persuade the world of the need to make war on Iraq.[i] Prior to Powell’s speech, a curious event took place at United Nations headquarters. Acting on a decision from higher authorities, U.N. workers covered up a tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war work, Guernica, which normally hangs at the entrance to the Security Council, where press conferences take place.[ii]

Guernica Picasso’s Guernica, a painting depicting the aerial bombing of a Spanish village in 1937, is perhaps the world’s best known artistic symbol of the horrors of war. Indeed, the tapestry reproduction was placed at the Security Council’s door to serve as a reminder of those horrors. One can thus imagine why Powell might not have wanted the Picasso as his backdrop when advocating for a war that was to begin with “shock and awe” in Baghdad. But regardless of whether it was censured at the behest of the U.S. or shrouded for the far-fetched aesthetic reasons cited by U.N. officials, the hiding of Guernica was a profound mistake. Then, as now, the world desperately needed the artwork’s cautionary message.

On that fateful Guernica-less day five years ago, Powell confidently claimed to the world that Saddam Hussein had trained Al-Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.[iii] We now know he largely based this claim on a confession by a man named Ibn al-Libi, a confession obtained after al-Libi was rendered by the U.S. to Egypt and tortured. Al-Libi has since recanted. Why did he say that Iraq had trained Al-Qaeda in W.M.D. in the first place? The C.I.A. seems to think he said it because it got the torture to stop. Precisely one year after Powell’s speech, a C.I.A. cable lent credence to al-Libi’s account that the Egyptians essentially buried him alive for some 17 hours as part of his “enhanced interrogation” plan.[iv]

Picasso would have warned us of all this shameful business, for in Guernica lay a two-fold principle: war is hell and torture is wrong. At a time when the Bush administration assured the public that its soldiers would be greeted with flowers[v] and that the “operation” was for Iraqi freedom[vi], missing was Picasso’s ominous reminder in Guernica that there is no such thing as an easy war. No one can dispute this now after over half a million Iraqi civilian casualties, according to a John Hopkins University study[vii], and nearly 4,000 U.S. military deaths.[viii]

But while Guernica has always been famous as an anti-war icon, it is little known as an anti-torture one. Indeed, Picasso’s masterpiece has always undermined a legal linchpin of the Bush administration’s torture program. Since the beginning of its detainee policy, the administration’s legal arguments have rested on a key unilateral determination that the Geneva Conventions did not apply as a matter of right to whomever the government deemed to be an “unlawful combatant.”[ix] In 2006, the Supreme Court pronounced that determination to be wrong. In particular, it held that detainees captured in armed conflict with the U.S. were entitled to at least the protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.[x] Common Article 3, which bans torture and outrages upon personal dignity among other things[xi], has long been widely regarded as the humanitarian minimum in armed conflict.[xii] So why did the Bush administration’s lawyers need the Supreme Court to tell them to abide by Common Article 3?

Because they ignored Guernica. The government’s position was that Common Article 3 applied only to conflicts within a country’s territory, not to transnational struggles like the “war on terror.” The provision, they argued, was drafted with civil wars in mind, in particular the Spanish Civil War.[xiii] It turns out that the delegates in Geneva sixty years ago would have known perfectly well that while the Spanish Civil War was called Spanish, it was actually transnational. Several foreign powers intervened in the Spanish Civil War on different sides of the conflict.[xiv] Perhaps the most infamous transnational involvement in the Spanish Civil War occurred on April 26, 1937, when Germany and Italy sent planes to firebomb the Spanish town of Guernica, killing hundreds of civilians and terrorizing the rest.[xv] Nearly 70 years later, came news of a different transnational horror; photographs of U.S. soldiers celebrating the torture of naked hooded beaten Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were broadcast around the world.[xvi] Leading U.S. interrogation officials in Iraq had been drawn from the war in Afghanistan, where they had been instructed from above that their detainees were generally not, as a formal matter, ultimately entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, even those contained in Common Article 3.[xvii]

Five years after the Guernica cover up at the U.N., the war in Iraq languishes on, the U.S. still refuses to effectively prohibit torture[xviii], and the Department of Justice continues to act to shield high level officials responsible for authorizing abuses.[xix] Picasso could have predicted these results. Covering up past atrocity lies on the path to future atrocity. The ugliness and distortions hidden beneath the baby blue U.N. drapes five years ago were inevitably to reveal themselves in the shameful, vivid and permanent images of today’s reality.

But though truth comes out eventually in different ways, the world cannot afford another literal or metaphorical Guernica cover up. This Super Tuesday, ask which candidate knows this recent piece of art history. The next U.S. president must have the Picasso principle emblazoned in his or her mind: war is hell and torture is wrong


[i] http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030205-1.html

[ii] http://www.slate.com/id/2078242/; http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F02E2DB1F38F936A35751C0A9659C8B63; http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0203-13.htm; http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0209-04.htm

[iii] http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030205-1.html (POWELL: “Al Qaida continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction…I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaida. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now as he, himself, described it… The support that (inaudible) describes included Iraq offering chemical or biological weapons training for two Al Qaida associates beginning in December 2000… As I said at the outset, none of this should come as a surprise to any of us.”).

[iv] http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/phaseiiaccuracy.pdf p. 79-82; http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/11/cia-rendition-t.html

[v] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/17/opinion/17thu2.html?st=cse&sq=wolfowitz+flowers&scp=1

[vi] http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/113497_opname21.shtml

[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/11/world/middleeast/11casualties.html?scp=3&sq=600%2C000+lancet&st=nyt; see also http://www.iraqbodycount.org/

[viii] http://icasualties.org/oif/

[ix] See, e.g. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/02.02.07.pdf

[x] See http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/05pdf/05-184.pdf

[xi] http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/0/e160550475c4b133c12563cd0051aa66?OpenDocument

[xii] http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/COM/375-590006?OpenDocument

[xiii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/documents/012202bybee.pdf; http://www.cartoonbank.com/newyorker/slideshows/05YooTaft.pdf

[xiv] http://hamdanvrumsfeld.com/GoodmanJinksSlaughter-FINALHamdamAmicusBrief-Jan52006.pdf, p. 19-22.

[xv] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/europe/guernica-remembered-picassos-legacy-446249.html; http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,918912-1,00.html; http://www.mayorsforpeace.org/english/speech/Gernika.html

[xvi] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/04/27/60II/main614063.shtml

[xvii] http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F04EFD7113FF932A15756C0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/02.02.07.pdf; http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/11/politics/11abuse.html?scp=1&sq=miller+abu+ghraib+rumsfeld+gitmo-ize&st=nyt; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/27/AR2005072702083.html

[xviii] See, e.g. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/07/20070720-4.html; http://www.fas.org/irp/cia/product/dcia090707.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/07/washington/07interrogate.html?ref=world (“A White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, denounced the measure [to limit C.I.A. interrogation methods those listed in the Army Field Manual] and said it would face a presidential veto if it passes.”).

[xix] http://www.tpmmuckraker.com/2008/01/whitehouse_to_mukasey_why_not.php; http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/01/hbc-90002285

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