The Road to Abu Ghraib: How the United States Played a Large Role in Creating International Human Rights-And Then Abandoning Them

By Lewis, Anthony | The American Prospect, October 2004 | Go to article overview

The Road to Abu Ghraib: How the United States Played a Large Role in Creating International Human Rights-And Then Abandoning Them


Lewis, Anthony, The American Prospect


FROM THE LAST, BEST HOPE OF earth to Abu Ghraib: What has happened to the vision of America as the land of justice? In countless ways, at home and in the world, this country has abandoned its commitment to the protection of human rights.

The change is all the more stark because Americans played such a large part in creating the very concept of international human rights. The United States Congress, 30 years ago, began demanding that countries receiving U.S. aid live up to basic standards of humanity. Private organizations such as Human Rights Watch highlighted the repressive cruelties of regimes from the Soviet Union to Latin dictatorships. American constitutional rights--guarantees of due process of law, the right to counsel, freedom of speech--became an international standard.

That enlightened leadership seems now to belong to another age. The United States is best known now, in world human-rights terms, for its single-minded opposition to the International Criminal Court, created to bring the authors of genocide and other war crimes to justice. It has pressed country after country for guarantees that Americans will be immune from the court's process.

At its Guantanamo Bay prison camp for alleged terrorists, the United States has renounced its treaty obligations under the Third Geneva Convention. The convention requires that people held as prisoners of conflict be offered individualized hearings before a competent tribunal to determine whether they are rightly held or, as they may argue, were taken mistakenly. President Bush swept that commitment aside by finding that all the prisoners at Guantanamo were "unlawful combatants," a term not found in the Geneva Conventions. Then his administration argued that the prisoners could not go to U.S. courts to test their detention--until the Supreme Court rejected that position.

Perhaps the most extreme departure from American law and tradition has been Bush's claim of power to detain American citizens indefinitely, without trial or access to counsel, if he finds that they are "enemy combatants." The Supreme Court, in the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, held that at least the detainee must have a fair opportunity to argue his innocence before a neutral decision-maker.

It remains to be seen how this ruling will influence government practice. Since the Hamdi decision, the government has continued to use special military tribunals in Guantanamo, and several prisoners have been found to be so-called enemy combatants and returned to indefinite confinement.

Presidential policy has altered the rights and the lives of obscure individuals, who are treated in ways that used to be regarded as unthinkable. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the FBI to arrest aliens who might have a connection to terrorism. Thousands were arrested, held for weeks and months, then charged with minor immigration violations. Later we learned what happened to some of them.

One was Javaid Iqbal, whose treatment was described by Nina Bernstein in The New York Times this May. He was an immigrant from Pakistan who lived on Long Island. He was arrested there on November 2, 2001, and held for nine months.

At a federal detention center in Brooklyn, Iqbal was kicked in the stomach with steel-toed shoes, left out in the rain, and then put in an air-conditioned cell. Those are a few of the things that happened, as described by Iqbal. They fit a report by the Justice Department's inspector general, who found that alien detainees at that tenter were physically and psychologically abused.

Secrecy kept Iqbal's fate from his family for a long time. Attorney General Ashcroft ordered legal proceedings in the cases of alien detainees held in secret. Families were not told where the detainees were. …

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