May 27, 2005

Shooting the Messenger

The Washington Post editorial board decides they have to draw the line somewhere [Emphasis mine, here and in other quoted material]:

IT'S ALWAYS SAD when a solid, trustworthy institution loses its bearings and joins in the partisan fracas that nowadays passes for political discourse. It's particularly sad when the institution is Amnesty International, which for more than 40 years has been a tough, single-minded defender of political prisoners around the world and a scourge of left- and right-wing dictators alike. True, Amnesty continues to keep track of the world's political prisoners, as it has always done, and its reports remain a vital source of human rights information. But lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world's dictators but for the United States.

... But we draw the line at the use of the word "gulag" or at the implication that the United States has somehow become the modern equivalent of Stalin's Soviet Union. Guantanamo Bay is an ad hoc creation, designed to contain captured enemy combatants in wartime. Abuses there -- including new evidence of desecrating the Koran -- have been investigated and discussed by the FBI, the press and, to a still limited extent, the military. The Soviet gulag, by contrast, was a massive forced labor complex consisting of thousands of concentration camps and hundreds of exile villages through which more than 20 million people passed during Stalin's lifetime and whose existence was not acknowledged until after his death.

... Worrying about the use of a word may seem like mere semantics, but it is not. Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies. It also gives the administration another excuse to dismiss valid objections to its policies as "hysterical."

On that note, more in sorrow than in anger, I'd like to say how sad I am to see the editorial board of one of the saner U.S. papers demonstrate how little they understand the concept of moral authority. I'd explain it to them, but I think the folks over at the Charleston Gazette have done a fine job of paying attention:

... Things are not improving for the world’s most vulnerable people, despite the fact that world leaders agreed in 2000 on a list of goals, set forth in the Millennium Declaration, to improve their lives. A combination of natural and man-made disasters has devastated lives from Dhaka to Darfur. Military gangs have enslaved, raped and killed children; terrorists have continued to murder innocents in large numbers; civilized nations have stooped to practices unworthy of their lofty ideals.

... Among all these observations are some that Americans should find especially troubling. The role of the United States in eroding norms of humane treatment of detainees in military conflict is hard to excuse, and the Amnesty report calls the U.S. Guantanamo prison “the Gulag of our time.” As Irene Khan, the organization’s secretary general, observes in her introduction to the report: “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.”

Like other critics of American abuses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, Khan is not talking so much about the acts of individual soldiers but the message sent by American leaders — first in declaring the Geneva Conventions irrelevant and second in failing to investigate thoroughly and prosecute anyone at a high level of responsibility.

This is not merely a bleeding-heart concern, as Khan notes; it grants permission to others to use convenient sophistry to ignore norms of humane treatment. It endangers not only innocent Afghans, Iraqis and others caught in the sweep of anti-terrorist efforts; it also endangers Americans, creating more animosity toward the United States and giving tacit permission for similar treatment of U.S. citizens. ...

Indeed, the Amnesty International Report covers 149 countries, and it has some pretty harsh things to say about other regions of the world. Though before we look at some of those other areas, the report had some interesting things to say in its overview of US actions that have had a directly corrosive effect on human rights in South America, and speak by example to the blindness of the Post editorial:

... The “war on terror” and the “war on drugs” increasingly merged, and dominated US relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. Following the US elections in November, the Bush administration encouraged governments in the region to give a greater role to the military in public order and internal security operations. The blurring of military and police roles resulted in governments such as those in Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay deploying military forces to deal with crime and social unrest.

The US doubled the ceiling on the number of US personnel deployed in Colombia in counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations. The Colombian government in turn persisted in redefining the country’s 40-year internal conflict as part of the international “war on terror”. ...

The fact that the US is now practicing the atrocities that it formerly only encouraged other countries to practice (don't give me that look) has shredded what little claim it had to be a champion, or even a practitioner, of respect for human rights. Repressive governments all over the world have been emboldened and given the convenient cover of fighting terrorism to deal with troublesome political disputes that in virtually every case arise out of public anger over oppression and exclusion.

Though it all comes to this: The US can't credibly criticize Syria when it renders prisoners there for the kind of torture they can't get away with at Bagram AFB anymore.

That endangers the life and safety of every single person living. Bush administration is creating a climate of lawlessness and reckless impunity in which every citizen of a developing nation is that much more likely to be injured by their government, and every citizen of a developed nation is that much more likely to be a target of terrorism, if not to have their own legal protections degraded.

In that vein, Amnesty's explanation of the legal climate surrounding US detainees is enough all by itself to smack the Post upside the head. Yes, plenty of people have talked about these things in public, but the situation remains troubling. To me it only proves that tyranny no longer needs to bother to hide:

... 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”. ...

And the Post is gravely mistaken if they think this isn't troublesome just because it's some "ad hoc" setup. Whether that description is appropriate or not, these actions could well represent more of a first foothold rather than a first shaky step. They got started with the Afghanis, then the Iraqis, then unlawfully extradited ghost detainees, and maybe they were just testing the waters to see what kind of opposition they would face.

According to the ACLU, the expanded police powers of USA PATRIOT Act II were voted on in secret by the Select Committee on Intelligence. This piece of legislation, if passed, would not only make the existing provisions of the first act permanent, it would go farther in stripping US citizens not accused or suspected of any crime of their rights to be protected from violations of their Constitutional rights.

This is a more complete analysis of PATRIOT II. Here are a few excerpted summary points that seemed especially alarming:

  • Permitting the government, under certain circumstances, to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court altogether and conduct warrantless wiretaps and searches. (Sections 103 and 104)
  • Sheltering federal agents engaged in illegal surveillance without a court order from criminal prosecution if they are following orders of high Executive Branch officials. (Section 106)
  • Enhancing the government’s ability to obtain sensitive information without prior judicial approval by creating administrative subpoenas and providing new penalties for failure to comply with written demands for records. (Sections 128 and 129)
  • Authorizing secret arrests in immigration and other cases, such as material witness warrants, where the detained person is not criminally charged. (Section 201)
  • Stripping even native-born Americans of all of the rights of United States citizenship if they provide support to unpopular organizations labeled as terrorist by our government, even if they support only the lawful activities of such organizations, allowing them to be indefinitely imprisoned in their own country as undocumented aliens. (Section 501)
  • Further criminalizing association – without any intent to commit specific terrorism crimes – by broadening the crime of providing material support to terrorism, even if support is not given to any organization listed as a terrorist organization by the government. (Section 402)
  • Permitting arrests and extraditions of Americans to any foreign country – including those whose governments do not respect the rule of law or human rights – in the absence of a Senate-approved treaty and without allowing an American judge to consider the extraditing country’s legal system or human rights record. (Section 322)

Make no mistake, these things that they're doing to Iraqis today they could be doing to American citizens later if they're allowed to keep getting away with only minor slaps on the wrist. They aren't asking for powers to fight terrorists here, they're asking for the power to spy on Americans without warrants, without suspicion of criminal activity of any kind. They're asking for the repeal of laws that were enacted to prevent the government from targeting political enemies. They're asking for the power to strip Americans of their citizenship and deport them to any country in the world without having to ever once go to a court of law and prove that the person in question has done anything wrong.

Members of the press need to wake the hell up and look at what's happening in this country and in the bigger picture. It's time for them to look to their duties as citizens of this country to see to it that egregious betrayals of our founding principles are protested with all the force they can muster. First, it tells the world that this administration is acting in opposition to the American public. Second, it would be a powerful reminder to the public that there are more important political issues than relative 'folksiness.' Third, it will someday save their own asses.

Do these twits think that if they just kiss up with the occasional editorial, that this will spare them the wrath of Dobson's minions when they've finished with the furriners & the libruls? There's a reason freedom of the press is in the Constitution, and that reason is that tyrants hate the press unless they own it. By refusing to sound the alarm about the march of tyranny and disrespect for the law, they're undermining the foundation of their own legal protections.

The Post would quibble with the word 'Gulag' not because of the type of crime being committed in our secret detention facilities, but because of the scale, and because the government doesn't yet have the power to stop people from talking about it. Though maybe it would be better not to let Bush rack up Soviet-scale casualties before deciding that employing Stalinesque methods even once is too often to be tolerated in a civilized society. If you aren't horrified about that first time, it isn't in me to trust that you'll be horrified between there and the 20 million mark.

It can be painful to have to criticize the government of a country you love, and it can make you sick to your stomach to read about some of these cases. It hurts a lot more to be on the receiving end of physical and psychological abuse, to know that you're helpless and forgotten. Every day that we remain a free people, it's our duty to speak out about the abuses of the only government in the world that's in any way accountable to us.

We should do it for the sake of people who can't speak out, and we should do it for the sake of our own future freedom.

Finally, see below for more excerpts from this vitriolically partisan Amnesty International report as it discusses countries that aren't America.


... Killings, abductions and rape by government forces and armed opposition groups remained widespread in armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

... Women continued to be raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence despite the ending of armed conflicts in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. In Darfur and eastern DRC, such abuse was used as a weapon of war against women and girls who had already experienced years of violence. There was no safe haven for women, even in refugee camps. In the DRC, the collapse of the health system left survivors of rape without health care for sometimes fatal injuries and infections. This lack of even basic health care was common to many other states.

... In Eritrea thousands of government critics and political opponents, many of them prisoners of conscience, were detained in secret. Some had been sentenced by panels of military and police officers in closed proceedings that flouted basic standards of fair trial. Those convicted were not informed of the accusations against them, had no right to defend themselves or be legally represented before the panels, and had no recourse to an independent judiciary to challenge abuses of their fundamental rights.

In Sudan, political opponents, supposed government critics, students and activists were detained under the National Security Forces Act, which allowed incommunicado detention without charge or trial for up to nine months. Many detainees were reported to have been tortured or ill-treated while held incommunicado under the Act.

Asia and the Pacific

... In NAD province in Indonesia, where the military emergency was officially downgraded to a civil emergency, the pattern of grave abuses of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights continued. The Indonesian security forces were primarily responsible for these violations, although the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) also committed serious abuses, notably the taking of hostages and the use of child soldiers.

... Asia remained the continent with the highest number of reported executions, with China, Singapore and Viet Nam heading the list. In China, with few effective safeguards to protect the rights of defendants, large numbers of people continued to be executed after unfair trials. In October, the authorities announced reforms aimed at upholding the rights of criminal suspects and defendants, including reinstatement of Supreme Court reviews in death penalty cases. It remained unclear, however, when these measures would be introduced.


... Civilians continued to be the principal victims of political violence. The human rights situation in Colombia remained critical, its civilians targeted by all sides in the conflict: the security forces, army-backed paramilitaries and armed opposition groups. Despite an agreed ceasefire and demobilization of some combatants, paramilitary forces were again responsible for widespread abuses. Security policies introduced by the government drew civilians further into the conflict.

... A UN report on the state of the world’s cities stated that Latin America had the highest risk of all types of sexual victimization, with approximately 70 per cent of reported incidents described as rapes, attempted rapes or indecent assaults. Despite efforts by the Mexican authorities, there were further killings of women in the state of Chihuahua, and the horrific brutality that characterized killings of women in Guatemala gave cause for growing international concern.

Women were particularly vulnerable in situations of conflict. In Colombia, all parties to the conflict subjected women and girls to sexual violence, including rape and genital mutilation. They were targeted to sow terror, wreak revenge on adversaries and accumulate “trophies of war”.

Middle East & North Africa

... Increasing numbers of Palestinians were killed and homes destroyed by the Israeli army in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Some 700 Palestinians died, including about 150 children. Most were killed unlawfully, in reckless shootings, shellings or air strikes on refugee camps and other densely populated areas throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli forces continued to carry out extrajudicial executions of members and leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups, in which bystanders were frequently killed or injured. Some 109 Israelis, most of them civilians and including eight children, were killed by Palestinian armed groups in suicide bombings, shootings and mortar attacks inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

... Human rights violations continued to be justified by the global “war on terror” as security forces across the region responded to attacks by armed groups they accused of links with al-Qa’ida. Dozens of people, including children, were killed in Saudi Arabia as armed groups carried out bomb attacks, hostage-takings and targeted killings of Western nationals. Bomb attacks claimed the lives of over 30 civilians and injured more than 100 others, most of them Israeli tourists, in Taba, in the Sinai region of Egypt. In Yemen, there were reports that hundreds of people were killed, most of them as a result of excessive force by the security forces, in clashes with followers of Hussain Badr al-Din al-Huthi, a cleric from the Zaidi community.

... Palestinian refugees, one of the largest refugee groups in the world, continued to suffer hardship in their host countries, while their right to return remained unfulfilled. Many were prevented from receiving the assistance they needed because the resources of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) were overstretched. Palestinian refugees continued to undergo particularly severe hardship in Lebanon, where discriminatory policies undermined their ability to earn their livelihoods and effectively restricted their access to economic and social rights.

... Throughout the region, states continued to pay little regard to their obligations under international human rights law. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment, and unfair trials – sometimes before exceptional courts – were routine. In Algeria, Iran, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other countries, the authorities regularly placed restrictions on freedom of expression and association, or carried out sporadic clampdowns, often resulting in the detention of prisoners of conscience. Political activists continued to face arbitrary detention or prolonged imprisonment after unfair trials in countries such as Iran, Libya and Syria.

Europe & Central Asia

... Earlier the Court of Appeal of England and Wales had ruled that “evidence” obtained by torture of a third party would be inadmissible in court proceedings only if UK agents had been directly involved in, or connived at, the torture. Throughout the year the UK also sought to circumvent its obligations under domestic and international human rights law by asserting that international human rights law did not bind its armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Russia, parliament extended to 30 days the period that someone suspected of “terrorism-related” offences could be held without charge. Uzbekistan conducted sweeping arbitrary detentions of hundreds of men and women said to be devout Muslims or their relatives, and sentenced scores of people accused of “terrorism-related” offences to long prison terms after unfair trials. Russian federal security forces continued to enjoy virtual impunity for violations in Chechnya.

... In countries from Finland to Cyprus, Roma remained severely disadvantaged in key areas of life such as housing, employment, education and medical services. In countries of the former Yugoslavia, large numbers of people seeking to rebuild their lives after being displaced by war continued to face discrimination on ethnic grounds, particularly in obtaining employment, education and health care. The treatment of people with mental disabilities remained a disgrace in many areas. In Bulgaria and Romania, the living conditions and lack of care in some hospitals and social care homes were so deplorable they amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, cage beds continued to be used in some institutions as a method of restraint.

... Torture and ill-treatment, often race-related, were reported across the region, including in Belgium, Greece, France and Spain. From east to west, states often failed to implement or respect rights that could provide a safeguard against abuses in police custody or pre-trial detention. Authorities in a number of states did not allow detainees access to a lawyer from the moment of arrest, or did not ensure an effective, properly resourced and independent system to investigate complaints. Failure to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations resulted in continued impunity for those responsible for torture and ill-treatment reported to be widespread in countries such as Albania, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In Turkey, torture and ill-treatment remained a serious concern despite positive changes to detention regulations. Turkey and many other states lacked independent scrutiny mechanisms to investigate such patterns of abuse. Reports continued that police in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania used firearms in violation of international standards on excessive force, sometimes with fatal results. In many countries, conditions in prisons, as well as in detention centres for asylum-seekers and unauthorized migrants, were cruel
and degrading.

... Trafficking of human beings, including women and girls for enforced prostitution, continued to afflict most countries throughout the region. In UN-administered Kosovo, the clients reportedly included international police and troops, and the women and girls – beaten, raped and effectively imprisoned by their owners – were often too afraid to escape. Survivors of this form of slavery were ill-served by many states with the power, and obligation, to do better. While many voices continued to press for state action against trafficking to be grounded in human rights protection, rather than through an agenda driven by organized crime and illegal migration, trafficked women were still failed by the authorities and judicial systems in countries of origin, transit and destination. Moldova, for example, remained a source country for women and girls trafficked for forced prostitution – the most vulnerable reportedly being women escaping domestic violence and children leaving institutional care. However, women were only exempted from prosecution in Moldova for crimes arising from being trafficked if they agreed to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. In Belgium, a destination country where trafficking for enforced prostitution reportedly continued to rise, the granting of residence permits was contingent on such cooperation – in accordance with EU legislation. ...

And that's just from the summaries. It goes on, and on, and on. Horror piled on horror until I wonder what kind of person can stand to write a report like this. I can only guess, but I'm fairly sure that no one with that level of conscience or sense of duty to humanity is sitting on the editorial board of the Washington Post today.

Posted by natasha at May 27, 2005 01:35 AM | Human Rights | Technorati links |


Posted by: Scorpio at May 27, 2005 07:02 AM

Excellent post, natasha. I absolutely despise the WaPo editorial page. First they used their pages to promote the war on Iraq and then never ever really apologized for it. They enabled these criminals in charge and can only think to harp on the critics that point out the criminal acts. They are blind to the encroaching darkness that you document so well. We are crying into the hurricane now. Is there anything that can pull this country back from the brink?

Posted by: Mary at May 27, 2005 11:29 AM