This isn't quite what seems to have happened in the US, as The Washington Post and The New York Times report. The Post says that the US Supreme Court decision in Hamdan v Rumsfeld clarifies the interpretation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions in a way which will benefit US (and by implication Australian) troops in combat.
The NYT story "Terror and Presidential Power: Bush Takes a Step Back" refers to a July 6 memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R England which declares that Common Article 3 "applies as a matter of law to the conflict with Al Qaeda"and requests defence officials to "promptly review all relevant directives, regulations, policies, practices and procedures under your purview to ensure that they comply with the standards of Common Article 3".
The administration claims, a claim which is echoed by Mr Downer, that this only restates existing policy.
The NYT quotes some statements which show that this is not so. For example:
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, January 11 2002: "They will be handled not as prisoners of war, because they're not, but as unlawful combatants. As I understand it, technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention".
President Bush, February 7 2002:"None of the provisions of Geneva apply to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world because, among other reasons, Al Qaeda is not a high contracting party to Geneva...The common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees, because, among other reasons, the relevant conflicts are international in scope and the common Article 3 applies only to 'armed conflict not of an international character' ".
Despite there are some, such as Janet Albrechtsen who don't see any need for change following Hamdan v Rumsfeld, as her opinion piece in today's Australian shows.