Off To a Great Start?

The State Department’s latest report on human rights has a few bright spots and a number of dim ones. On the one hand, it seems that the State Depertment is being unusually candid in its appraisal of the human rights records of a number of U.S. allies- including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. On the other hand, it also chronicles the abuses that have already taken place on the watch of the newly created Iraqi government. While the new government’s record is already better than that of the Hussain era, one could be forgiven for hoping that that dark chapter in Iraq’s history would result in a stronger rejection of torture and coercion by the new administration. Undoubtably, relics from the Hussein era remain, and will continue to for years to come. But the report shows that the creation of a democratic government with top-to-bottom respect for human rights and the rule of law will require more than just elections. The struggle to prevent Iraq from lapsing back into the habits of strong-arm despotism established under Saddam Hussein will likely linger for many years.

Meanwhile, while the State Departments willingness to look carefully at the records of U.S. allies is commendable, no discussion of human rights policy in Iraq, or anywhere else in the world, can be complete without considering the human rights record of the United States itself. The State Department report looked only at human rights violations alleged to have been comitted by agents of the Iraqi government, not by U.S. lead forces in Iraq. The Abu Ghraib scandal, and more recent British revelations about prisoner mistreatment, were not discussed. While a few low-level participants in the abuses at Abu Ghraib have gone to trial, there remains a distinct lack of accountability at higher levels of the U.S. military. What of the reports that guards were instructed to ‘soften up’ prisoners in order to aid intelligence gathering? What about orders from farther up the chain of command authorizing sleep deprivation, simulated drowning, and other methods of inducing prisoners to reveal intelligence information?

A quote from the New York Times article:

A senior State Department official said the criticism of Iraq was in keeping with the administration’s approach. “What it shows is that we don’t look the other way,” the official said. “There are countries we support and that are friends, and when they have practices that don’t meet international standards, we don’t hesitate to call a spade a spade.”

Taking a harder look at U.S. allies is a nice start, but if the Bush administration is serious about about calling spades spades and judging practices by international standards, steps need to be taken to clarify the administration’s position on its own deeds. If Bush is as serious as he claims about the international struggle for freedom and basic rights, lets see a clear and final repudiation of torture and torture-like practices in all U.S. run detention facilities- whether they exist on U.S. soil or not. Lets see a clear statement that all prisoners in U.S. detention facilities will be protected by the Geneva Convention. Lets see an end to torture by proxy- the practice of turning prisoners over to agents of foreign countries who don’t abide by those agreements. Lets see an end to the practice of declaring U.S. citizens- born or naturalized- ‘enemy combatants’ and suspending their rights of habeus corpus. Lets see an unobstructed inquiry into the roots of the Abu Ghraib abuses, and the policies and decisions that made them possible.

No more torture, no more unchallenged, unreported detention. No more looking for loopholes in our international human rights agreements. Clear, unambiguous statements of an ongoing American commitment to abide by our own Constitution and the international treaties that we have endorsed, backed by action and accountability. A little moral clarity, you might even say.


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