Human Rights

Former POW John McCain: Iran’s Treatment of Detained Sailors Violated International Law

Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain (R – Ariz.) and State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner both raised the possibility on Wednesday that Iran’s treatment of American sailors that it detained was a violation of international law.

McCain, a former Navy officer and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said in a statement that the seizure of two American vessels and the detention of their crews breached legal and naval norms.

The Administration is pretending as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. Vice President Joe Biden described the incident as ‘standard nautical practice.’ That assertion is patently false. What’s worse, by failing to affirm basic principles of international law, it places our Navy and Coast Guard vessels and the men and women who sail them at increased risk in the future.

Under international law, sovereign immune vessels like navy ships and boats do not lose their sovereign immune status when they are in distress at sea.  Under international law, sovereign immune naval vessels are exempt from detention, boarding, or search. Their crews are not subject to detention or arrest.

McCain rejected the assertion that the strengthened diplomatic ties that have emerged between the two countries in the wake of the nuclear deal last July aided in the resolution of the incident. The sailors “were ‘arrested’ in apparent violation of international law and centuries of maritime custom and tradition,” he said, adding that four Americans “still languishing in Iranian prisons” haven’t seen the benefits of increased diplomatic engagement.

In a briefing on Wednesday, a reporter asked Toner whether the images of American sailors with their hands on their heads was a potential violation of the Geneva Convention. “I mean, generally speaking, you’re not supposed to show images of detained prisoners of war,” Toner replied. The Washington Free Beacon wrote that Toner was likely referring to the Third Geneva Convention, which states that prisoners of war must be “protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”

The exchange can be seen in the video below.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R – Kan.) also raised questions about whether Iran’s treatment of the detained sailors violated international law. “We now must fully investigate Iran for possible violations of the Geneva Convention and ensure these sailors were treated properly,” he said in a statement.

Iran’s capture of these sailors raises serious questions about the Iranian regime and what it will take for the Obama administration to understand that Iran is not a partner in peace.  How many American service members does Iran would have to capture?  How many U.N. resolutions does Iran have to violate?  And how close do Iranian rockets have to come to U.S. ships before President Obama takes real action against Iran?  Is there any limit to what the fanatical Iranian regime can get away with?

Pompeo’s statement referred to Iran’s ballistic missile test in October, which violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and to an incident in December when a vessel from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite extraterritorial militia, fired rockets near the USS Harry S Truman. U.S. Central Command spokesman Cmdr. Kyle Raines called the Truman incident “highly provocative…unsafe, unprofessional and inconsistent with international maritime law.”

After Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines in 2007, the British government asserted that the broadcasting of their images constituted a violation the Third Geneva Convention.

[Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr ]