Speaking Out


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Protest over human rights policies of the Bush administration.

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Speaking Out

  1. 1. SPEAKING OUT A Cry for Justice BY LARRY W. ROEDER JR. T he story of Abu Ghraib had in the government. The trouble is Our failure to just hit the news, complete that what happened at Abu Ghraib is with its crisp, ugly pho- not unique. Many administrations maintain a system tographs, evidence of a system gone have held positions that went over the of full civil rights wrong. A lawyer who works in the line. But the events of today offer field of human rights and who knew I bold proof that the system itself has for prisoners and had been in the military asked me if broken. For example, evidence has detainees only such behavior was illegal in the Army. now come to light that many alleged Somewhat stunned by the question, I terrorists have died while in U.S. mil- encourages said of course it was. I went on to itary custody. In one particularly terrorism and raise the conditions of the prisoners notorious case, U.S. interrogators may being held at Guantanamo Bay, and have strangled an Iraqi general during weakens our argued that they needed lawyers and questioning. If true, that was murder, alliances. access to the Red Cross and other no matter how valuable the prisoner. human rights observers in order to As a result, we need a change in atti- avoid similar mistreatment, as well as tude; our failure to maintain a system to protect our reputation. My col- of full civil rights for prisoners and league replied that those prisoners detainees only encourages terrorism have no rights, since “they are (though evil never needs encourage- pirates.” only be one comment on this policy. ment) and weakens our alliances. If an attorney that works on Hooey! For a beacon such as our Let me be clear: I am not calling human rights issues doesn’t know nation to appear to be an advocate for a debate on the appropriateness of the proper answers to those basic for torture is to seriously undermine the war on terrorism, which I support, questions, then small wonder West our credibility as an advocate for or the Iraq conflict itself — both Virginia reservists were confused human rights. It also weakens our important topics upon which good, when aberrant intelligence officers ability to convince rogue nations to fair-minded people can disagree. Nor claimed that the rules of war join the civilized world. should this be an election-year fight. changed after 9/11 and therefore Such ignorance of what is appro- Rather, speaking as a professional civil their “high-value” prisoners had no priate — that America can’t be above servant, I am advocating the impor- rights. Of course, unknown to both the law or even appear to trying — tance of managing our involvement in of us was a memo from Justice which demonstrates the need for a long- such wars in the proper way, and urg- contends that the president isn’t overdue national discussion on the ing a recognition that even noble ends bound by laws prohibiting torture importance of civil rights in the war do not justify unethical means — cer- and that government agents who on terror. Many Americans are prob- tainly not those alleged to have been might torture prisoners at his direc- ably also confused. This dialogue proposed in the Justice Department tion can’t be prosecuted for doing so. could perhaps be conducted via a memo. The memo reportedly even says that televised discussion by a panel of legal Universal Principles the president, as commander-in- experts who would take questions chief, can approve torture as a from ordinary citizens in the audi- After 9/11, we were told the world method of interrogation. Clearly my ence. had changed, that al-Qaida was a new, colleague was therefore justified in This is not an attack on the current unprecedented threat. But that claim asking the question; but there can administration. It is an honor to serve overlooks the long history of terrorist 17 SEPTEMBER 2004/FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
  2. 2. SPEAKING OUT activities before 2001. What about the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, or the activities of the Bader Meinhof, Red Army and Shining Path, to name just a few groups? The response to such savage people and events was, and must remain, to bolster our democratic, constitutional principles during war, not to take away rights. Each time our citizens lose rights in the struggle against terrorism or in any conflict, the terrorists win. But when we stand on the side of justice, even when attacked, we make a mockery of the evil that is al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. One Pentagon adviser recently called the Geneva Conventions “quaint,” and went on to challenge the whole concept of observing basic human rights in wartime. It is hard to imagine an attitude more short-sight- ed and destructive to our nation’s image than dismissing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as irrelevant. Both treaties provide that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment — period, no exceptions. You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand that. It has been said that the Defense Department tried another tack to defuse criticism by refusing to use the word “torture,” saying that term doesn’t apply to what went on in Abu Ghraib. Yet the Convention against Torture says: “‘Torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purpos- es as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating 18 FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL/SEPTEMBER 2004
  3. 3. SPEAKING OUT In times of war, even democratic governments often pass laws they become ashamed of once the crisis has passed. or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimina- tion of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the insti- gation of or with the consent or acqui- escence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” These acts are equally illegal in Iraq, Cuba or back in the U.S., whether in war or in peace. Every religious system and code of morality teaches that such conduct is immoral — i.e., kidnapping unproven suspects and taking them across the border for “rough treatment” — and experience shows that it is also inef- fective or at least counterproductive. Yet now we are told that because of a few madmen, we must abandon the presumption of innocence when deal- ing with possible terrorists. Some may object that if a prisoner knows something crucial that might save the lives of many innocent people, then it is worth violating his rights to obtain that information by any means neces- sary, including torture —- the so- called “ticking bomb” justification. Under the same reasoning, hundreds of “enemy combatants” have been sent to brigs in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq, and even right here in the United States, for years at a time without any trial to determine guilt. We are also told that prisoners may be held for years without trial — with no opportunity to defend themselves. 19 SEPTEMBER 2004/FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
  4. 4. SPEAKING OUT This violates the very meaning of the doubt — but tanks and cannon are our words and our deeds only weak- American Revolution. not police tools. Rather than put out ens our ability to speak out on behalf Yes, some, perhaps many, of these the word “dead or alive,” we should of victims of oppression and police- detainees may be “pirates,” as my col- have tried to bring them in alive, to be state brutality around the world — league believes. But they are still put on trial in The Hague for crimes even here at home. A moral approach human beings with rights we must against humanity, so the world and to justice isn’t always easy; but uneth- respect. Toward that end, while we Iraq would know the meaning of ical shortcuts, though they may have must protect secrets, trials should be American and international justice — quick positive returns, will in the end public, wherever possible. The vic- a justice superior to the savagery of destroy us. tims of tyranny in Iraq, Afghanistan Saddam’s Iraq. The Supreme Court has, I am and elsewhere deserve this, to say Every year, as we have done for relieved to note, now ruled that the nothing of the citizens of this country, decades now, the State Department prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and who must be convinced that publishes a comprehensive set of other “enemy combatants” are enti- American justice is open, fair and country human rights reports evaluat- tled to at least some of the basic due- swift. For when our justice is secret, ing how every government around the process rights required by the U.S. we are set up for abuses by the few world treats, or mistreats, its citizens. Constitution. That set of decisions is and can’t deflect lies. But when American officials engage not popular in many quarters, but it in some of the very practices we right- marks a welcome return to our coun- The Meaning of Justice ly denounce elsewhere, as happened try’s most fundamental values. This is also why the way Saddam in Iraq and may have happened in Our Founding Fathers launched a Hussein’s sons were killed was repug- Afghanistan and Cuba, those reports revolution that inspired the world, nant. The two were savages — no lose credibility. And that gap between proclaiming that all humans are creat- 20 FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL/SEPTEMBER 2004
  5. 5. SPEAKING OUT ed equal, and are endowed with rights States almost went to war with France that no government can take away as xenophobia swept our country, Any gap between our from them, no matter where they live leading to passage of the Enemy Alien or what they believe. We have not Act and Alien and Sedition Acts per- words and our deeds fully lived up to that idea, but it has mitting the president to arrest, guided our nation for more than two imprison and deport “dangerous” only weakens our ability centuries. My own great-grandfather, immigrants on mere suspicion of Ernest Winter, like the ancestors of “treasonable or secret machinations to speak out on behalf of many Journal readers, fought tyranny against the government.” If such a in his homeland at great risk to him- deportee returned, he could be victims of oppression self before coming to this country. He imprisoned for as long as the presi- was a national labor politician who dent thought “the public safety may and police-state escaped the Kaiser’s secret police by require.” Sounds like how we treat so- crossing the German border in a hay called “enemy combatants,” doesn’t brutality around wagon under the threat of death. He it? And in an unsettling parallel with was smuggled to England and then today’s Patriot Act, the Sedition Act the world. traveled to America, where he spent made it unlawful to write, print, pub- the rest of his life working for the lish or speak “false, scandalous and downtrodden, alongside Samuel malicious” words about Congress or Gompers and other activists. the executive branch — in direct vio- In times of war, even democratic become ashamed of once the crisis lation of the First Amendment guar- governments often pass laws they has passed. In 1798, the United antee of freedom of expression. 21 SEPTEMBER 2004/FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
  6. 6. SPEAKING OUT Though the Alien and Sedition setting an example for all to follow. Acts (but not the Enemy Alien Act, it Give the prisoners lawyers. Give The Supreme Court is worth noting) were ultimately them rights and a speedy, open, fair repealed, their spirit has resurfaced trial. No more deaths or torture dur- ruling that the more than once during wartime. ing interrogation. Such behavior de- Abraham Lincoln suspended the right means us and sets American soldiers prisoners at of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and civilians up for torture in the and thousands of Japanese-Americans future. Guantanamo Bay were interned for years during World As the Hindu poet Manu wrote in War II despite a complete lack of any 1200 BC: “Justice, being destroyed, and elsewhere do have evidence that they were disloyal or will destroy; being preserved, will pre- had harmed the United States in any serve; it must never, therefore, be vio- at least some rights way. Rights were abrogated in World lated. Beware, O Judge! Lest justice, War I as well, and internment camps being overturned, overturn both us is not popular in many from that conflict were used again in and thyself.” s World War II. But those decisions quarters, but it was were soon correctly seen as aberra- Larry Roeder, a Civil Service employ- tions, not as precedents. ee of the State Department, is the pol- the right call. We must return to our American icy adviser on disaster management in revolutionary roots, resisting the the Bureau of International Organi- temptation to weaken our system of zations. The views expressed herein rights when under stress, and instead are his only. 2000 N. 14th Street s Suite 500 Arlington, VA 22201 Telephone (703) 797-3259 Fax (703) 524-7559 Tollfree (800) 424-9500 22 FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL/SEPTEMBER 2004