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Darfur and Abu Ghraib
by Kenneth Roth*

Among the myriad human rights challenges of 2004, two pose fundamental threats to human rights: the ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib.  No one would equate the two, yet each, in its own way, has had an insidious effect.  One involves indifference in the face of the worst imaginable atrocities, the other is emblematic of a powerful government flouting a most basic prohibition.  One presents a crisis that threatens many lives, the other a case of exceptionalism that threatens the most fundamental rules.  The vitality of the global defense of human rights depends on a firm response to each—on stopping the Sudanese government’s slaughter in Darfur and on changing the policy decisions behind the U.S. government’s torture and mistreatment of detainees.

In Darfur, the western region of Sudan, massive ethnic cleansing has sparked much international hand-wringing and denunciation but little effective action.  The systematic violence against civilians by Sudanese government forces and government-backed militia constitutes crimes against humanity and has even been described by some as genocide, yet the international response has been little more than to condemn the atrocities, feed the victims, and send a handful of poorly equipped African forces to try, largely in vain, to stop the slaughter.  No serious pressure has been put on the Sudanese government to halt its murderous campaign.  No meaningful protective force has been deployed.  Coming a decade after the Rwandan genocide, the mass murder in Darfur mocks the vows of “never again.”  How can governments honestly mouth those words when their actions fall so shamefully short? 

Immediate action is needed to save the people of Darfur.  The U.N. Security Council—or, failing action by that body, any responsible group of governments—must deploy a large force capable of protecting the civilian population, prosecute the killers and their commanders, disband and disarm the Sudanese government’s militia, and create secure conditions so displaced people can return home safely.  Continued inaction risks undermining a fundamental human rights principle—that the nations of the world will never let sovereignty stand in the way of their responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities.

The U.S. government’s use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq poses a different kind of challenge: not because the scale of the abuse is as large as Darfur, but because the abuser is so powerful.  When most governments breach international human rights and humanitarian law, they commit a violation. The breach is condemned or prosecuted, but the rule remains firm.  Yet when a government as dominant and influential as the United States openly defies that law and seeks to justify its defiance, it also undermines the law itself and invites others to do the same.  The U.S. government’s deliberate and continuing use of “coercive interrogation”—its acceptance and deployment of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment—has had this insidious effect, well beyond the consequences of an ordinary abuser.  That unlawful conduct has also undermined Washington’s much-needed credibility as a proponent of human rights and a leader of the campaign against terrorism.  In the midst of a seeming epidemic of suicide bombings, beheadings, and other attacks on civilians and noncombatants—all affronts to the most basic human rights values—Washington’s weakened moral authority is felt acutely.

As the Bush administration begins its second term, its challenge is to make human rights a guiding force for U.S. conduct and to establish America’s credibility as a defender of human rights.  As a first step, President Bush and the U.S. Congress should establish a fully independent investigative commission—similar to the one created to examine the attacks of September 11, 2001—to determine what went wrong in the administration’s interrogation practices and to prescribe remedial steps.  Washington should also acknowledge and reverse the policy decisions behind its torture and mistreatment of detainees, hold accountable those responsible at all levels of government for the mistreatment of detainees, and publicly commit to ending all forms of coercive interrogation.

[*] The writer is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

index  |  next>>January 2005