The Howard government and its
allies evidently still regard international terrorism as a political
plus for them, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to all of its
incidents. One issue the government must wish would just go away is
that of David Hicks, still, after four and a half years, a prisoner of
the US military in Guantanamo Bay. In this month’s Monthly magazine, a feature essay by Alfred W McCoy, “Outcast of Camp Echo”, puts the focus back on Hicks’s predicament.

McCoy
says that Australians face a choice: “They can break with Canberra’s
policy and press their government to honour its commitments, under
domestic and international law, to protect the human rights of all
Australians. Or, they can support the Howard government’s decision to
placate a powerful ally by consigning David Hicks to further inhumane
torture and illegal incarceration”.

A response, of sorts, from the anti-Hicks camp appears in today’s Australian, where Neil James,
head of the Australian Defence Association, maintains that “Releasing
Hicks unilaterally would undermine long-established international law”.
But even hard-liners like James appear having some doubts.

The
case against Hicks depends on two claims: that he is an “unlawful
combatant”, not a prisoner of war, and that the military commissions
are an appropriate and lawful way of dealing with such cases. James is
quite right to insist that these are separate issues. But in the past
he has explicitly defended the first and seemed at least reasonably comfortable with the second.

Today,
however, he concedes that Hicks “might be covered as a PoW by the 1977
additional protocols to the Third Geneva Convention”, and also that
“Majority international opinion … based on the continuing evolution
of laws of armed conflict” holds that the military commissions are
illegitimate. But he still clings to the view that there is an
intermediate situation, or “limbo”, between prisoner of war and common
criminal, into which he hopes Hicks can be fitted.

The Australian Defence Association
has no official status, but from its origins as a right-wing lobby
group it has acquired considerable credibility as an advocate for the
pro-military “line”. If that line is softening, then maybe there is a
glimmer of hope yet for David Hicks.