U.S. Policy of Abuse Undermines Rights Worldwide
January 19, 2006
Fighting terrorism is central to the human rights cause. But using illegal tactics against alleged terrorists is both wrong and counterproductive.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch

(Washington, D.C.) – New evidence demonstrated in 2005 that torture and mistreatment have been a deliberate part of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy, undermining the global defense of human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing itsWorld Report 2006 .

The evidence showed that abusive interrogation cannot be reduced to the misdeeds of a few low-ranking soldiers, but was a conscious policy choice by senior U.S. government officials. The policy has hampered Washington’s ability to cajole or pressure other states into respecting international law, said the 532-page volume’s introductory essay.

“Fighting terrorism is central to the human rights cause,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But using illegal tactics against alleged terrorists is both wrong and counterproductive.”

Roth said the illegal tactics were fueling terrorist recruitment, discouraging public assistance of counterterrorism efforts and creating a pool of unprosecutable detainees.

U.S. partners such as Britain and Canada compounded the lack of human rights leadership by trying to undermine critical international protections. Britain sought to send suspects to governments likely to torture them based on meaningless assurances of good treatment. Canada sought to dilute a new treaty outlawing enforced disappearances. The European Union continued to subordinate human rights in its relationships with others deemed useful in fighting terrorism, such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

Many countries – Uzbekistan, Russia and China among them – used the “war on terrorism” to attack their political opponents, branding them as “Islamic terrorists.”

Human Rights Watch documented many serious abuses outside the fight against terrorism. In May, the government of Uzbekistan massacred hundreds of demonstrators in Andijan, the Sudanese government consolidated “ethnic cleansing” in Darfur, western Sudan, and persistent atrocities were reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chechnya. Severe repression continued in Burma, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Tibet and Xinjiang in China, while Syria and Vietnam maintained tight restrictions on civil society and Zimbabwe conducted massive, politically motivated forced evictions.

There were bright spots in efforts to uphold human rights by the Western powers in Burma and North Korea. Developing nations also played a positive role: India suspended most military aid to Nepal after the king’s coup, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forced Burma to relinquish its 2006 chairmanship because of its appalling human rights record. Mexico took the lead in convincing the United Nations to maintain a special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism. Kyrgyzstan withstood intense pressure from Uzbekistan to rescue all but four of 443 refugees from the Andijan massacre, and Romania gave them temporary refuge.

The lack of leadership by Western powers sometimes ceded the field to Russia and China, which built economic, social and political alliances without regard to human rights.

In his introductory essay to the World Report, Roth writes that it became clear in 2005 that U.S. mistreatment of detainees could not be reduced to a failure of training, discipline or oversight, or reduced to “a few bad apples,” but reflected a deliberate policy choice embraced by the top leadership.

Evidence of that deliberate policy included the threat by President George W. Bush to veto a bill opposing “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” Roth writes, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s attempt to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from the law. In addition, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed that the United States can mistreat detainees so long as they are non-Americans held abroad, while CIA Director Porter Goss asserted that “waterboarding,” a torture method dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, was simply a “professional interrogation technique.”

“Responsibility for the use of torture and mistreatment can no longer credibly be passed off to misadventures by low-ranking soldiers on the nightshift,” said Roth. “The Bush administration must appoint a special prosecutor to examine these abuses, and Congress should set up an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate.”

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 contains survey information on human rights developments in more than 70 countries in 2005. In addition to the introductory essay on torture, the volume contains two essays: “Private Companies and the Public Interest: Why Corporations Should Welcome Global Human Rights Rules” and “Preventing the Further Spread of HIV/AIDS: The Essential Role of Human Rights.”