Michael: Gulag in a TeapotAmnesty International released its 2005 world report, including the U.S. country report highlighting abuses at U.S. military detainment facilities, and immediately drew irate criticism from the Administration. But it was not the report, nor its substance that the Administration challenged; it was the statement of one Amnesty official, Irene Khan, during the presentation of the report that has drawn fire. She stated that Guantanamo had become “the gulag of our time.” Obviously, she meant that the word Guantanamo had become shorthand for human rights abuses and illegal detention. Ignoring the substance of the report, Cheney homed in on Khan’s statement, “I was offended by it. For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don't take them seriously.” Unusually, in that he usually leaves the trash talk to Cheney, Bush weighed in, too, saying, “It's an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. When there's accusations made about certain actions by our people, they're fully investigated in a transparent way.”
The word ‘gulag’ appears nowhere in Amnesty’s report. But despite that, the Administration has successfully diverted attention from the substance, which is rightly a scandal, to a scandal of their own invention. It is not at all unusual for a government accused of human rights abuses to attack the critic rather than address the concerns raised, so the Administration’s tactic of killing the messenger is not unexpected, nor unprecedented. Despite any hyperbole on the part of Amnesty International’s officer, and despite the Administration’s dismissive attitude, Guantanamo Bay and other military detention facilities represent a very serious human rights problem, and a stain upon the honor and repute of the United States in the eyes of the world.
The plain fact is that the Administration has worked very hard to carve out an extra-legal status for these facilities in which neither the U.S. Constitution nor international laws of war and human rights apply. Whenever such extraordinary power is claimed, extraordinary responsibility and accountability is rightly demanded by our own citizens, and by the international community. Clearly, we need leeway to develop intelligence to prevent and combat terrorism. Given our very limited hum-int capability in the region of concern, prisoners represent the best source of information available to us. But when given extraordinary power over others, it is imperative that accountability for misbehavior and abuse be extraordinarily rigid. This Administration seems to have chosen the exact opposite tack, not only tolerating abuses, but also actually suggesting them. Now the Administration is attempting to protect anyone politically important from taking responsibility for their desperate, and unwise, policies.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent and other independent humanitarian organizations have been allowed to visit, but not inspect or investigate allegations at these facilities. The only investigations have been by the military itself. Such closed systems of accountability are inherently untrustworthy, and world opinion simply reflects a healthy skepticism about any procedure of self-investigation by our military or this Administration or its proxies. Even so, the military has found credible evidence of torture and even homicide in the camps, though not all of the evidence has been made publicly available. Such serious infractions of military discipline and the rules for the treatment of prisoners, whether covered by the Geneva Conventions or not, warrants independent inquiry into these matters. Nothing short of that will restore the honor, integrity, and any claimed transparency in the oversight of these facilities.
I wish I could say that the Administration’s striking out at Amnesty is anything more than a desperate ploy, but the report makes clear, despite any rhetorical excesses by Amnesty officials, that the Bush Administration has turned the United States into a serious violator of human rights on an international scale. Until we summon the will to investigate the many allegations of abuse, independent of people and organizations with a vested interest in protecting this Administration and the GOP from embarrassment, or even criminal liability, we will remain a focus of concern in Amnesty’s future reports, and a symbol of hypocrisy and the corruption of power to the world.