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May 25, 2005

Amnesty Rails
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Amnesty International has released their latest report on the state of human rights worldwide.  I have not had a chance to read it in full, but the early reports suggest that it blames the U.S. for global backsliding on human rights and the rule of law in recent years.   A foreward by Amnesty's Secretary General, Irene Khan, seems to support such a read.  Some excerpts:

Despite the near-universal outrage generated by the photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib, and the evidence suggesting that such practices are being applied to other prisoners held by the USA in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere, neither the US administration nor the US Congress has called for a full and independent investigation.

Instead, the US government has gone to great lengths to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions and to “re-define” torture.  It has sought to justify the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the practice of holding “ghost detainees” (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) and the "rendering" or handing over of prisoners to third countries known to practise torture. The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law . . .

The USA, as the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behaviour worldwide. When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity. From Israel to Uzbekistan, Egypt to Nepal, governments have openly defied human rights and international humanitarian law in the name of national security and “counter-terrorism”.

Khan's message goes on to make some important points about the larger state of human rights, including the ineffectiveness of the UN's human rights mechanisms and the shameful failure to prevent genocide in Darfur (topics discussed on DA here and here).

Amnesty has laid out some of the problems with current U.S. policies in their starkest terms, terms that may cause many in the U.S. political debate to simply tune out what the group has found. 

I see one of our tasks in the progressive foreign policy world to translate the concerns that we and Amnesty share into terms that allow for reasoned debate and even consensus-building among people of sharply differing views.   

We need Amnesty to weigh in with the facts as they see them, and need to weigh in ourselves with forward-looking interpretations and prescriptions where we can offer them. 

Reform of the UN's human rights mechanisms is one place where people on all sides of the spectrum ought to be able to agree; the Bush Administration should be judged on the progress it can elicit there.  I partly agree with one of the comments to this earlier post on Gunatanamo and Bagram that one ought not be too quick to blame military culture for the abuses there; the vast majority at all levels within the military are disgusted by what's happened and would probably say it bears no relation to the values they hold.  We do need to confront the question of why such abuses have occurred repeatedly anyway.

Some say (though I don't agree) that Bush has taken the upper hand from progressives when it comes to the promotion of democracy.   The same certainly can't be said on human rights.


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And here at home, most on the Left have remained silent on the major human rights issue- gay rights- letting the Right demonize gays and cower liberals.


Is it fear of having the public tune out that has caused leaders of the liberal persuasion to remain silent about the torture and abuse of prisoners by members of the military, untold numbers of intelligence groups and private contractors? I don't think so. I think it's cowardice.

Amnesty has laid out some of the problems with current U.S. policies in their starkest terms, terms that may cause many in the U.S. political debate to simply tune out what the group has found.


The reason I 'tune out' Amnesty International is because of their habit of pretending international law- particularly the Geneva Conventions- means something it does not. The Geneva Convention explicitly specifies requirements for being considered a combatant protected under the GC, and the people in Guantanamo DO NOT QUALIFY. Amnesty International has ignored this for years.

The idea behind the Geneva Conventions is that combatants will restrain themselves from committing certain actions in exchange for considerations granted to captured combatants and civilians. One of those requirements- wearing uniforms- is to make it easy to distinguish between soldiers and civilians... and the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters flouted it.

This isn't exclusive to Amnesty International, either- for example


Following the events of 11 September 2001, when it was evident that an armed conflict between the coalition and the Taliban regime was likely, the ICRC, consistent with its general practice, sent messages to certain governments reminding them of their obligations under international humanitarian law. Unfortunately these messages contained some debatable interpretations of the law. They put less reliance on binding treaty law than on provisions of 1977 Geneva Protocol I, _to_ _which_ _neither_ _the_ _US_ _nor_ _Afghanistan_ was_ _a_ _party_, and not all of the provisions of which that were cited can plausibly be claimed to be "recognized as binding on any Party to an armed conflict", as the messages optimistically asserted.


Not only does the progressive human-rights community misinterpet international law, they want the US to behave as if it is bound by treaties it is not party to.

This does nothing to promote respect for, or understanding of, international law.

The previous comment nicely illustrates one of several lines of reasoning that gives people an excuse for not standing up against torture and the abuse of prisoners. Well done.

I fully understand why anyone would be loathe to "tell it like it is" to powerful people who have no compunction about using torture. It's not that those of us who speak out expect to be tortured ourselves but rather that, as Suzanne says, they simply won't listen.

But this is not a debating club and the very notion that the Bush administration would listen to a "reasoned debate" on any subject, let alone its complicity in torture, is ludicrous. Sure, Bush won't listen to the truth, but eventually the rest of the country will.

However, the moment, you try to "build consensus" on a moral absolute like torture, then no one will listen.

Because Americans despise cowards and they can spot one a mile away. They will, as Clinton said recently, pick leaders who appears strong but are wrong over those who are right but seem weak.

"The previous comment nicely illustrates one of several lines of reasoning that gives people an excuse for not standing up against torture and the abuse of prisoners. Well done."

The United States of America is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment (New York, 10 December 1984.) It says:

The prohibition against torture is absolute and, according to the Convention, no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, including state of emergency or war or an order from a public authority may be invoked as a justification of torture.

What are you talking about, "well done"? Then there's US Law...

Sorry, Lavinia, I guess the sarcasm didn't come through.

To be clear, I am totally fed up with people excusing torture and the abuse of prisoners. I do believe that the United States has to set the bar on the just and humane treatment of other human beings regardless of their legal status. AND I don't believe that makes us weak.

Thanks for the reference to the Convention Against Torture.

there was an editorial in the post about the report the other day, and I agreed with it wholeheartedly.

I don't have it in front of me, but the gist was this: The United States has an obligation to make sure that it is serving as a good example re: detainees, but Amnesty has an obligation to make sure that it makes reasonable claims.

The ad hoc detention facility at Guantanamo should never be compared to the Soviet Gulags, in which millions upon millions of Soviet citizens died. I hope that Amnesty gets the message and tones down its rhetoric; we need watchdogs, but not rabid ones.

I'm very glad someone around here understood what I was getting at. Thanks, Ben.

"The ad hoc detention facility at Guantanamo should never be compared to the Soviet Gulags."

'ad hoc:
adj. Latin shorthand meaning "for this purpose only." Thus, an ad hoc committee is formed for a specific purpose, usually appointed to solve a particular problem.'||||

....okay, we can easily see how that applies to guantanamo, right: a temp holding place for 'enemy combatants'.

....mmmm, no we can't. there is nothing temporary about guantanamo - it is as 'permanent' as those gulags:

further details on Camp Delta:

it's only been about 3 years since we began imprisoning people, eh? ...sooo, can we say the camps are temporary?

mmmm, other than x-ray, nope: there are still an undisclosed number of folks illegally(see SCOTUS 2 February 2005 ruling)detained at these camps. there are no published timelines for allowing prisoners legal access to the courts, much less plans for releasing the obviously innocent detainees (and, sorry: i'm not taking this administration's word on whether it's night or day, much less whether they imprisoned innocent people).

AI may have resorted to hyperbole.

they may also have a point.

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