Human Rights Watch
World Report 2007
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Audio Commentary

Press Conference

Photography - Year in Review

News Release




The US Government: Compromised Credibility

In the past, many would have looked to the United States to take the lead in addressing these challenges. Though never a consistent promoter of human rights, Washington has been a prominent and influential one. Yet its voice now rings hollow—an enormous loss for the human rights cause. Quite apart from the fallout of its ill-fated Iraq invasion, its credibility as a proponent of human rights has been tarnished by the abuses it practices in the name of fighting terrorism. Few US ambassadors dare to protest another government’s harsh interrogations, detention without trial, or even “disappearances,” knowing how easily an interlocutor could turn the tables and cite US misconduct as an excuse for his government’s own abuses. The cheapness of that excuse does not diminish its embarrassing effectiveness. Nor can consolation be taken in the fact that the United States is far from the world’s worst rights violator. The abuses it has committed have done damage enough.

The last year dispelled any doubt that the Bush administration’s use of torture and other mistreatment was a matter of policy dictated at the top rather than the aberrant misconduct of a few low-level interrogators. The administration claimed to foreswear torture but refused to classify mock execution by drowning—the classic torture technique now known as water-boarding—as prohibited torture. Despite the absolute treaty prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the administration claimed it could impose such abuse so long as the victim was a non-American held outside the United States—a position it abandoned only after the US Congress adopted the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 by a veto-proof majority. Perhaps the low point came in September 2006, when President Bush offered a full-throated defense of torture, referring to it euphemistically as “an alternative set of [interrogation] procedures.”

In the face of these developments and of growing resistance to these illegal techniques by the uniformed members of the US military, the Pentagon in September adopted a new Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation which prohibits coercive interrogation by its own forces. Yet the administration continues to insist on granting Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogators the power to use these coercive techniques. The Military Commissions Act, adopted by Congress in September, reaffirmed the absolute ban on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment but undermined enforcement by denying detainees the right to challenge their detention and treatment in court.

Of parallel concern is the administration’s continued use of arbitrary detention as a tool of counterterrorism. It has distorted beyond all proportion the traditional power of warring parties to detain enemy combatants until the end of an armed conflict. Wielding the concept of a “global war on terrorism,” the administration claims the power to detain, without judicial supervision, any non-American anywhere in the world as an “enemy combatant” and to hold him without charge or trial as long as it wants—even until the end of his life. The administration denies the need to establish any link between the detainee and actual participation in an armed conflict—a traditional restraint on this wartime power to limit due process rights. The most basic rights are in jeopardy when a government asserts such extraordinary power.

Indeed, the administration’s arrogation of power extends even to the claimed authority to “disappear” people—to seize them surreptitiously without any acknowledgment, any lawyer, any Red Cross visit, any contact with the outside world. This odious practice, widely and correctly condemned by the United States in the past when practiced by other governments, leaves friends and family guessing why their loved one has disappeared and whether he or she is even alive.

These abuses committed in the name of counterterrorism have only aggravated the terrorist threat. The use of torture and arbitrary detention spurs terrorist recruitment in communities that identify with the victims. It alienates those communities from law enforcement officials who are trying to reach out to them for tips about suspicious activity—a far more important source of intelligence than statements squeezed abusively from a suspect. And it sacrifices the moral high ground while eroding the principle that laudable ends cannot justify despicable means.

This catastrophic path has left the United States effectively incapable of defending some of the most basic rights. The United States can still promote freedom of expression, association, or religion—where it largely practices what it preaches. But when it comes to such fundamental rights as freedom from torture and arbitrary detention, the hypocrisy renders effective advocacy all but impossible.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April 2006 visit to Washington made this limitation evident. In a rare exception to his usual practice, President Bush mentioned the phrase “human rights,” but he quickly specified that he meant “the freedom to assemble, to speak freely, and to worship”—all worthy goals, all freedoms that the United States itself respects, but hardly a direct confrontation of the Chinese government’s use of arbitrary detention and abusive prison conditions to enforce its grip on power.

One might hope that this effective silencing of America’s voice on human rights would be short-lived—the product of a particular administration’s contempt for any constraint on its power. Much will depend on steps taken by a new Congress to remedy the administration’s worst excesses and by a successor administration to reverse and punish them.

But the damage done is also more fundamental. Abusive governments now conveniently equate the advancement of human rights with “regime change” and the invasion of Iraq—an equation that Sudan has used with deadly effect to ward off pressure regarding Darfur. Some Americans are doing the same. Sustaining American will and capacity to promote human rights will require divorcing the militarism of the neo-conservative vision from the laudable quest for democratic governance. Popular support for defending human rights is likely to depend on separating the administration’s imperial indifference to national boundaries—ostensibly in the name of human rights but in situations that fall far short of those justifying humanitarian intervention—from the essential duty to stand up for victims of political repression and other abuses.