(New York) -- U.S. President George W. Bush correctly acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions apply to the conflict in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. But he erred in deciding that the Conventions do not cover al-Qaeda detainees and by categorically ruling out prisoner of war status for Taliban detainees without convening a competent tribunal, as the Geneva Conventions require.

The Geneva Conventions should apply to both Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees being held by U.S. forces at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, even if ultimately the al-Qaeda fighters would likely not be accorded POW status, Human Rights Watch said. The Conventions provide explicit protections to all combatants captured in an international armed conflict, even if they are deemed to be unprivileged combatants not entitled to POW status.

"The Administration is right to acknowledge that it has to play by the rules, but it can't then rewrite the rules to suit its purposes," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "What makes this decision hard to understand is that the Geneva Conventions don't prevent the United States from interrogating or prosecuting detainees."

Unlike the al-Qaeda fighters, detainees who fought for the Taliban probably should be accorded POW status because they fought for the armed forces of a party to the Convention, whether or not their government was recognized and whether or not their fighters respected the laws of war. The United States has traditionally accorded POW status to captured combatants fighting for enemy powers in either circumstance.

"This decision puts soldiers around the world at risk," said Roth, "especially U.S. troops who might be captured in combat."