The Abu Ghraib stain makes pushing U.S. rights policy abroad tougher
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) – For a government that routinely lectures foreign countries on their human rights failings, this has been a very difficult year for the United States.
The abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and the disclosure of government memos that seemed to justify torture as an interrogation technique have led to charges the United States has no moral authority to stand in judgment of others.
When the United States inveighed against Sudan’s recent election to a seat on the U.N. Commission for Human Rights, Sudanese diplomat Omar Bashir Manis said it was ironic that Washington raised objections given the “atrocities” American forces committed at Abu Ghraib.
Sudan’s election to a seat “is not at all different” from the United States winning a seat, said Manis, whose government is accused of uprooting 1.2 million Sudanese in the Darfur region.
Although many might question his suggestion of moral equivalence between the United States and Sudan on rights performance, the allegations have been damaging for the Bush administration.
“I have been particularly appalled,” said the State Department’s top official for human rights, Lorne Craner, alluding to Abu Ghraib’s impact.
Craner oversees the “name them and shame them” annual agency report on rights practices worldwide.
He said the United States can retain the moral high ground only by insisting that those responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses be held accountable.
Six U.S. military police soldiers face charges in the scandal; one other has pleaded guilty and has been sentenced to a year in prison. The role of military intelligence in the scandal is under investigation.
President Bush signed a declaration in 2002 saying he had the authority to ignore international rules for treatment of captives. He says no orders have been given to torture or mistreat prisoners.
Richard Dicker, an international law expert at Human Rights Watch, believes post-Abu Ghraib image recovery won’t be easy. “A lot of damage has been done,” he said.
The extent of U.S. prisoner mistreatment in both Iraq and Afghanistan was disclosed Thursday in an Army report: 39 have died in U.S. custody, and 94 others are abuse victims, either proved or suspected.
In May, when the prisoner abuse scandal was peaking, Craner rejected the notion the administration should lower its voice on rights abuses internationally.
“Who would be better off if we self-consciously turned inward and ignored human rights abuses elsewhere – in places like Burma and Zimbabwe and Belarus?” he asked, referring to countries under authoritarian rule.
Recently, the State Department withheld release of a report outlining its good works in 101 countries, waiting until the tempest over Abu Ghraib eased.
U.S. efforts, the report says, include establishment of a school to enhance leadership skills of politically active women in East Africa; the first independent printing press in Kyrgyzstan; and creation of halfway houses for former child soldiers in Colombia so they can live normal lives.
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s highest profile rights initiative nowadays is to ease the suffering in Darfur. He is demanding that Sudanese authorities increase humanitarian access to victims there and rein in militias responsible for the suffering.
Democratic candidate John Kerry has indicated he may be less assertive on certain aspects of human rights policy than Bush. For example, he told the Washington Post in May that pursuing nonproliferation goals in Russia and Pakistan is more important than protecting human rights, and that China’s integration into the world economy transcends rights concerns.
Virtually all presidents have been harshly criticized on rights policy, mostly from rights groups that contend the White House has often been indifferent to countries where abuses are common.
Amnesty International USA leveled that charge when the State Department released its annual human rights report in February. It argued that too many countries feel too little U.S. pressure to end abuses.
Bush’s defenders reject the allegation, pointing to the administration’s push for democratic reform in the Middle East – a goal Powell will be pursuing during a visit to the region this week.