2005/06/11

Comparing AI's charges to descriptions of same

Amnesty International (AI) is raked over the coals by the author of Gulag. Anne Applebaum, who wrote about the Soviet gulag (The Gulag Archipelago was a name made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the mid-1970s when he made his way to the US and published a book by that name.) that referred to truly horrible camps in which 18 million Soviet citizens were forced to do hard manual labor and in which millions perished. They were quite extensive and were rooted in Soviet ideology and the Soviet state.
Amnesty International summarizes in their Americas section (emphasis theirs) :

Regional overview 2004

Respect for human rights remained an illusion for many as governments across the Americas failed to comply with their commitments to uphold fundamental human rights. Widespread torture, unlawful killings by police and arbitrary detention persisted. The US-led “war on terror” continued to undermine human rights in the name of security, despite growing international outrage at evidence of US war crimes, including torture, against detainees.
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National security and the ‘war on terror’

The blatant disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law in the “war on terror” continued to make a mockery of President George Bush’s claims that the USA was the global champion of human rights. Images of detainees in US custody tortured in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked the world. War crimes in Iraq, and mounting evidence of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees in US custody in other countries, sent an unequivocal message to the world that human rights may be sacrificed ostensibly in the name of security.

President Bush’s refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to those captured during the international armed conflict in Afghanistan and transferred to the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was challenged by a judicial decision in November. The ruling resulted in the suspension of trials by military commission in Guantánamo, and the government immediately lodged an appeal. The US administration’s treatment of detainees in the “war on terror” continued to display a marked ambivalence to the opinion of expert bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and even of its own highest judicial body. Six months after the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts had jurisdiction over the Guantánamo detainees, none had appeared in court. Detainees reportedly considered of high intelligence value remained in secret detention in undisclosed locations. In some cases their situation amounted to “disappearance”.

The AI Secretary General then made the comment that has attracted so much furious denunciation:

In 1973 AI published its first report on torture. It found that: “torture thrives on secrecy and impunity. Torture rears its head when the legal barriers against it are barred. Torture feeds on discrimination and fear. Torture gains ground when official condemnation of it is less than absolute.” The pictures of detainees in US custody in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, show that what was true 30 years ago remains true today.

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 practice 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. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process.

The USA, as the unrivaled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behavior worldwide. When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license 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”.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that he disapproved. (emphasis FoxNews)

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended the military's handling of detained terror suspects Wednesday while acknowledging that some have been mistreated, "sometimes grievously."
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Rumsfeld said the U.S. military has done more than any other force to liberate oppressed people and has gone to great lengths to ensure that detainees are free to practice their religion.

"Indeed, that's why the recent allegation that the U.S. military is running a gulag at Guantanamo Bay is so reprehensible," he said.

Note that the AI charges are considerably reduced from "restrict[ing] the application of the Geneva Conventions" to initiating "the practice of holding 'ghost detainees' ” to setting a bad example, thereby causing bad practices to spread throughout the rest of the world by Rumsfeld to a complaint about how AIs wording of the issue is "reprehensible". We then got the WaPo Op-Ed from Applebaum about how AI has supposedly overstated the issue.

Amnesty, in other words, was an organization that once knew the meaning of the word "gulag." Amnesty also once knew the importance of political neutrality. On its Web site, the organization still describes itself as "independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion." In the Cold War era, this neutrality was important, since it prevented the organization's publications, whether on prison food or prison deaths, from being seen as propaganda for one side or another.

I don't know when Amnesty ceased to be politically neutral or at what point its leaders' views morphed into ordinary anti-Americanism. But surely Amnesty's recent misuse of the word "gulag" marks some kind of turning point. In the past few days, not only has Amnesty's secretary general, Irene Khan, called the U.S. prison for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "the gulag of our times," but Amnesty's U.S. director, William Schulz, has agreed that U.S. prisons for enemy combatants are "similar at least in character, if not in size, to what happened in the gulag." In an interview, Schulz also said that foreign governments should prosecute U.S. officials, as if they were the equivalent of the Soviet Union's criminal leadership.

Again, the very serious issues that AI presents are reduced to a quibble over wording. Applebaum then goes into flights of fancy:

Thus Guantanamo is the gulag, President Bush is Generalissimo Stalin, and the United States, in Khan's words, is a "hyper-power" that "thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights" just like the Soviet Union. In part, I find this comparison infuriating because in the Soviet Union it would have been impossible for the Supreme Court to order the administration to change its policies in Guantanamo Bay, as it has done, or for the media to investigate Abu Ghraib, as they has done, or for Irene Khan to publish an independent report about anything at all.

First of all, as AI points out, yes "the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts had jurisdiction over the Guantánamo detainees," BUT "none had appeared in court". Yes, it's marvelous that the Supreme Court "order[ed] the administration to change its policies", but it's hardly a cause for celebration that its ruling has yet to be enforced. AI did not make a comparison between Bush and Stalin, but it's hardly a stretch to suggest that the Bush Administration "thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights", that is, it's not a stretch IF one takes AI's whole list of charges seriously. If one, as Rumsfeld does, reduces the charges to quibbles over wording and whether the US respects the religion of detainees, then one might reasonably suspect AI of overstating its case.
Applebaum disputes the "gulag" charge "because our detention centers are not intrinsic to our political system, and because they are therefore not 'similar in character' to the gulag at all." This is a truly silly complaint that trivializes the issue at hand. Yes, it's entirely true that the "Gulag" was central to the Soviet system and was deeply rooted in Soviet ideology, but AI said nothing about how Guantanamo related to American political ideology. AI was simply comparing how prisoners were treated under the two systems. The answer is that they are treated in a manner much too similar for Americans to feel good about the comparison. Americans had this debate when Abu Ghraib first came to our collective attention. Liberals recoiled in complete disgust when conservatives were reduced to arguing that Americans behaved slightly better than had the regime of Saddam Hussein. We were like "Dude, if THAT's the best argument you can come up with...".

As I've said before, America once compared itself to a "city on a hill". Once, America set itself up as something that all Mankind could look to for an example as to how Mankind could govern itself. Once, America stood for something more than just grubby self-interest and immediate advantage.

BTW, Liberal Oasis points out that the charges are starting to stick. And yes, I'm interpreting the word "Mankind" to refer to ALL human beings.

1 comment:

Mary Shaw said...

On behalf of Amnesty International, I thank you for this post.

There are mixed feelings (to say the least) within the Amnesty International community regarding the gulag metaphor. But my biggest problem regarding Ms. Kahn's use of the term is the fact that it gave the Bushies an opportunity to cause people to miss the forest for one semantic tree.

Thank you for helping to put it into the proper perspective.

Here is a link to a related op-ed of mine that was distributed via the BuzzFlash newswire and other independent media: Bush Administration Flip-Flops on Amnesty and Shoots the Messenger

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Mary Shaw
Philadelphia Area Coordinator
Amnesty International USA