Treatment of detainees demands accountability

by Jordan Green

Amnesty International’s 2005 report has a struck a nerve with a Bush administration that increasingly finds itself isolated and resented on the world’s stage. The report paints the United States as a first-rank human rights abuser and a lawless regime.

The lightning rod for the administration and its supporters’ outrage is the report’s description of Guantánamo Bay as ‘“the gulag of our times.’” That is only one aspect of US policy Amnesty International decries.

The report also notes that ‘“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’… Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process.’”

Such language is hard to ignore, even for the famously unflappable Bush administration.

On May 31, President Bush called the report ‘“absurd.’”

The next day Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld savaged the report as ‘“reprehensible.’”

‘“No force in the world has done more to liberate people that they have never met than the men and women of the United States military,’” he said. ‘“Indeed that’s why the recent allegation that the US military is running a gulag at Guantánamo Bay is so reprehensible.’”

In a same-day riposte, William F. Schultz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, noted that Rumsfeld cited the organization’s extensive reports on atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification for the invasion of Iraq, and that Rumsfeld as an envoy of President Reagan was ‘“courting’” the Iraqi dictator when the organization first exposed human rights abuses in Iraq in the 1980s.

To be sure, anyone making an objective comparison between the US detention network and the Stalin-era Soviet gulags must conclude that the Soviet system was far more extensive and lethal. In her 2003 book, ‘“Gulag,’” journalist Anne Applebaum estimates that 1 million people were killed in mass executions during the period of 1929 through 1953 when the Soviet killing machine was at its peak. An additional 18 million people were alleged to have passed through the camps.

By comparison, accounts of the US system by conservative writer Andrew Sullivan published by the London Times on Jan. 9, engender horror, but on a much smaller scale.

‘“We know for certain that the US has tortured five inmates to death. We know that 23 others have died in US custody in suspicious circumstance,’” he writes. ‘“We know that thousands of men, women and children were grabbed almost at random from their homes in Baghdad, taken to Saddam’s former torture palace [Abu Ghraib] and subjected to abuse, murder, beatings, semi-crucifixions and rape.’”

We at YES! Weekly applaud Amnesty International’s boldness while we take their hyperbole with a grain of salt. What matters is not the tit-for-tat comparison between the United States and countries led by historical psychopaths, but the example set by the world’s unrivalled military force.

Amnesty International, then, gets the last word: ‘“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.’”