Pressure from civil libertarians in the United States has apparently led to some welcome changes in the government's proposals for the special military tribunals due to be set up to try captured members of al–Queda. A unanimous verdict by the tribunal members will now be required for a sentence of death instead of the majority verdict previously envisaged. Some provision has been made for an appeal process but the details are not clear from the leaked draft published by the New York Times.

Many other questions remain unanswered about the status of the captured al–Queda and Taliban suspects. Since no war has been constitutionally declared by the United States it is unclear whether these men are legally prisoners–of–war covered by the Geneva Convention or are “battlefield detainees” as the US is currently calling them. Nor is it clear where they will be tried; existing plans are to move them to the US base on Cuba and to other US possessions.

Is it intended that the trials should not take place in the United States and if so what arrangements will be made for independent media reporting of them?

When President Bush was asked some of these questions during his vacation in Texas he replied, “Whatever the procedures are, our system will be more fair than the system of bin Laden and the Taliban”.

That is not a satisfactory answer. The comparison should not be between US and bin–Laden's or the Taliban's justice but between America's own normally high legal standards and those being planned for the alleged terrorists.

Ray Fleming

A farewell to arms

While attention in Spain was focussed on the arrival of the euro at midnight on Monday, another historic event passed almost unnoticed – and probably unlamented – as two hundred years of military conscription came to an end. Spain's armed forces are now made up entirely of volunteers – but, unfortunately, too few of them. Their nominal strength of 150'000 has a shortfall of 35'000 and the quality of recruits is lower than desirable since pay is only 65 per cent of the national average.

The phasing out of the highly unpopular and inefficient 12–month conscription was one of Jose Maria Aznar's election pledges in 1996 but the compensatory measures needed to make the military more attractive as a career have not been put in place. Spain spends only 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, compared to 2.5 per cent in Britain. Equipment and living quarters are basic and, even in a country where youth unemployment is high, few see the military as an alternative. Faced with a a serious shortage of recruits the defence ministry has been trying to attract the children of Spanish immigrants in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Uruguay. The results, however, have been disappointing, with a high proportion of those admitted dropping out after a few months. Spaniards have been ambivalent about the role of the military in the post–Franco years. Now that it is beginning to play a role in international peace–keeping its image should change for the better, but getting the volunteers it needs will not be easy without increased investment in equipment and other areas.



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