<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Coercive Interrogation

The U.S. government’s systematic and continuing use of coercive interrogation jeopardizes a pillar of international human rights law—a centuries-old proscription, reaffirmed unconditionally in numerous widely ratified human rights treaties, that governments should never subject detainees to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.  Yet in fighting terrorism, the U.S. government has treated this cornerstone obligation as merely hortatory—a matter of choice, not duty.

This disdain for so fundamental a principle has done enormous damage to the global system for protecting human rights.  Broad public condemnation has certainly greeted the U.S. government’s use of torture and other abusive techniques.  To some extent that outrage has reinforced the rules that Washington violated—but not enough.  Washington’s lawless example is so powerful, its influence so singular, that its deliberate breach threatens to overshadow the condemnations and leave human rights law significantly weakened.  If even so basic a rule as the ban on torture can be flouted, other rights are inevitably undermined as well.

To make matters worse, the Bush administration has developed outrageous legal theories to try to justify many of its coercive techniques.  Whether defining torture so narrowly as to render its prohibition meaningless, suggesting bogus legal defenses for torturers, or claiming that the president has inherent power to order torture, the administration and its lawyers have directly challenged the absolute ban on abusing detainees.

The problem is compounded by the weakening of one of the most important governmental voices for human rights.  Washington’s record of promoting human rights has always been mixed.  For every offender that it berated for human rights transgressions, there was another whose abuses it ignored, excused, or even supported.  Yet despite this inconsistency, the United States historically has played a key role in defending human rights.  Its embrace of coercive interrogation—part of a broader betrayal of human rights principles in the name of combating terrorism—has significantly impaired its ability to mount that defense. 

Governments facing human rights pressure from the United States now find it increasingly easy to turn the tables, to challenge Washington’s standing to uphold principles that it violates itself.  Whether it is Egypt defending renewal of its emergency law by reference to U.S. anti-terror legislation, Malaysia justifying administrative detention by invoking Guantánamo, Russia citing Abu Ghraib to blame abuses in Chechnya solely on low-level soldiers, or Cuba claiming the Bush administration had “no moral authority to accuse” it of human rights violations, repressive governments find it easier to deflect U.S. pressure because of Washington’s own sorry post-September 11 record on human rights.  Indeed, when asked by Human Rights Watch to protest administrative detention in Malaysia and prolonged incommunicado detention in Uganda, State Department officials demurred, explaining, in the words of one, “with what we are doing in Guantanamo, we’re on thin ice to push this.” 

Similarly, many human rights defenders, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, now cringe when the United States comes to their defense.  They may crave a powerful ally, but identifying too closely with a government that so brazenly ignores international law, whether in Iraq, Israel and the occupied territories, or the campaign against terrorism, has become a sure route to disrepute.  To his credit, President Bush, in a November 2003 speech, deplored “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom” in the Arab world.  Recalling U.S. efforts to roll back Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, President Bush committed the United States to a new “forward strategy of freedom.”  Yet because of animosity toward Washington’s policies, the close collaboration with civil society that characterized U.S. pro-democracy efforts in Eastern Europe is now more difficult in the Middle East and North Africa.  This animosity is not anti-Americanism, as it is often misconstrued in an effort to dismiss it, but anti-American policyism.

Washington’s loss of credibility has not been for lack of rhetorical support for concepts that are closely related to human rights, but the embrace of explicit human rights language seems to have been calculatedly rare.  The Bush administration speaks often of its devotion to “freedom,” its opposition to “tyranny” and “terrorism,” but rarely its commitment to human rights.  The distinction has enormous significance.  It is one thing to pronounce oneself on the side of the “free,” quite another to be bound by the full array of human rights standards that are the foundation of freedom.  It is one thing to declare oneself opposed to terrorism, quite another to embrace the body of international human rights and humanitarian law that enshrines the values that reject terrorism.  This linguistic sleight of hand—this refusal to accept the legal obligations embraced by rights-respecting states—has facilitated Washington’s use of coercive interrogation.

What has been particularly frustrating about Washington’s disregard for international standards is how senseless, even counterproductive, it has been—especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where counterterrorism efforts have focused.  Open and responsive political systems are the best way to encourage people to pursue their grievances peacefully.  But when the most vocal governmental advocate of democracy deliberately violates human rights, it undermines democratically inclined reformers and strengthens the appeal of those who preach more radical visions.

Moreover, because deliberately attacking civilians is an affront to the most basic human rights values, an effective defense against terrorism requires not only traditional security measures but also reinforcement of a human rights culture.  The communities that are most influential with potential terrorists must themselves be persuaded that violence against civilians is never justified, regardless of the cause.  But when the United States disregards human rights, it undermines that human rights culture and thus sabotages one of the most important tools for dissuading potential terrorists.  Instead, U.S. abuses have provided a new rallying cry for terrorist recruiters, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib have become the recruiting posters for Terrorism, Inc.  Many militants need no additional incentive to attack civilians, but if a weakened human rights culture eases even only a few fence-sitters toward the path of violence, the consequences can be dire.

And for what?  To vent frustration, to exact revenge—perhaps, but not because torture and mistreatment are needed for protection.  Respect for the Geneva Conventions does not preclude vigorously interrogating detainees about a limitless range of topics.  The U.S. Army’s interrogation manual makes clear that abuse undermines the quest for reliable information.  The U.S. military command in Iraq says that Iraqi detainees are providing more useful intelligence when they are not subjected to coercion.  In the words of Craig Murray, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan who was speaking of the U.K.’s reliance on torture-extracted testimony, “We are selling our souls for dross.”

None of this is to say that the United States is the worst human rights abuser.  Perusal of this year’s annual Human Rights Watch World Report will show many more serious contenders for that notorious title.  But the sad truth is that Washington’s unmatched influence has made its contribution to the degradation of human rights standards unique. 

It is not enough to argue, as its defenders undoubtedly will, that the Bush administration is well intentioned—that it is the “good guy,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal.  A society ordered on intentions rather than law is a lawless society.  Nor does it excuse the administration’s human rights record, as its defenders have tried to do, to note that it removed two tyrannical governments—the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba’ath Party in Iraq.  Attacks on repressive regimes cannot justify attacks on the body of principles that makes their repression illegal.

To redeem its credibility as a proponent of human rights and an effective leader of the campaign against terrorism, the Bush administration needs urgently to reaffirm its commitment to human rights.  For reasons of principle and pragmatism, it must, as noted, allow an independent, September 11-style investigative commission to examine completely its interrogation practices.  The administration must then acknowledge the wrongfulness of its conduct, hold accountable all those responsible (not just a small group of privates and sergeants), and publicly commit itself to ending all forms of coercive interrogation. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005