Friday, May 27, 2005

Torture, terror, and justice: Amnesty International on America's human-rights record

The blue gal in a red state (see link, right) alerts us to Amnesty International's recently released 2005 report. As an ardent opponent of the death penalty and (of course) human-rights abuses, I have the utmost respect for AI. (Disclosure: I was once a member.) Though I have always sensed a latent anti-Americanism in its comparative studies (i.e., treating the U.S. more harshly than deserved), its work is, in my view, extremely important, not least because there seems to be a tendency to ignore human-rights abuses around the world, or perhaps to pretend that they're not really happening (e.g., Rwanda, Darfur), or to fall back into a certain smug complacency that all must be well, especially if we don't know about it. This year, the report on the U.S. is particularly bleak. I quote the summary here (but be sure to read the full piece)
Hundreds of detainees continued to be held without charge or trial at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Thousands of people were detained during US military and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and routinely denied access to their families and lawyers.

Military investigations were initiated or conducted into allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by US personnel in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and into reports of deaths in custody and ill-treatment by US forces elsewhere in Iraq, and in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. Evidence came to light that the US administration had sanctioned interrogation techniques that violated the UN Convention against Torture. Pre-trial military commission hearings opened in Guantánamo but were suspended pending a US court ruling.

In the USA, more than 40 people died after being struck by police tasers, raising concern about the safety of such weapons. The death penalty continued to be imposed and carried out.

I bring it up here not to gloat, not because I am in any way anti-American, not to ridicule what I think is, on the whole, a noble and just land -- maybe not the last, best hope of earth, but pretty darn close. No, I bring it up because I think that self-examination is as imporant on the national level as on the individual level. The U.S. exists according to the universal principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined politically in the Constitution. It was inevitable that the U.S. would fall short of those principles. Slavery is the most obviously example, but the Framers wrestled with this question, and some looked forward to the day when it would be abolished. Such examples of injustice are, to say the least, blights on American history, but they do not necessarily invalidate those universal principles. Indeed, it is America's strength, I believe, that it has, throughout its history, attempted to live up to those principles, or at least to approximate them, even if the realities have occasionally suggested otherwise. What I would argue, though is that self-examination may lead to self-criticism, which in turn may lead to self-improvement. It is only through examining our flaws and coming to terms with them that we can ever hope of correcting them. That, I think, is why AI's evaluation of America's transgressions is so important.

As for those transgressions: I wish they were not so, but they are, and we must live in the light of the truth, not in some fantasyland where all seems to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Note: Canada is hardly excused from criticism (see here), although our record has been pretty good. Nor is the United Kingdom (see here), of which I am (for the sake of full disclosure) also a citizen.

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