U.S. moral authority hurt by prison abuses, rights group says

UNITED NATIONS — Washington’s moral authority in the war on terrorism has been undermined by the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and the secretive detention and coercive techniques used against prisoners elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said in a report yesterday.

The international monitor said human rights suffered a serious setback worldwide in 2004 as a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal and the failure of the global community to protect victims of ethnic massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth said the massacres in Darfur and murderous attacks against civilians in other countries were clearly more heinous than the U.S. abuse of prisoners.

However, he said the United States has set itself up as the defender of human rights around the world, adding that when it fails to adhere to long-established standards, it lends seeming legitimacy to repressive practices pursued by other governments in the name of security.

America vs. Human Rights

“The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere.”
Human Rights Watch

“In the midst of a seeming epidemic of suicide bombings, beheadings and other attacks on civilians and noncombatants — all affronts to the most basic human-rights values — Washington’s weakened moral authority is felt acutely,” Mr. Roth said in the 2005 report, which covers human-rights abuses in 64 countries.

Human Rights Watch is an independent non-governmental organization that has been critical of repressive regimes on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, and of both Israel and Muslim states.

In a news conference at United Nations headquarters yesterday, Mr. Roth urged the U.S. government to establish an independent panel to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Abu Ghraib scandal and for similar abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other secret detention facilities around the globe.

He acknowledged, however, that the Bush administration appears unrepentant, noting that President George W. Bush has nominated his former chief counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to become attorney-general, despite memos from Mr. Gonzales that justified the use of torture and derided as “quaint” and “obsolete” the Geneva Conventions’ that set limitations on interrogation and treatment of prisoner combatants.

Until it disowns those policies and prosecutes those responsible, “the U.S. is not going to be able to re-establish what had been a strong norm against torture or redeem its credibility as a proponent of human rights,” he said.

Administration officials insist they do not condone the torture or abuse of prisoners, but have defended the practice of holding and aggressively interrogating prisoners suspected of terrorist ties.

Asked about the Human Rights Watch report yesterday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States “is at the forefront of the defence and promotion of human rights around the world.”

He rejected the report’s contention that the scandal at the Iraqi prison, which was uncovered early last year, resulted from a government-wide policy that condones prisoner abuse or torture.

He noted the soldiers responsible for the abuse have been charged, though critics argue responsibility goes to the top of the chain of command, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumstead.

“We do not condone torture or abuse of prisoners. The actions of the administration have been quite clear in prosecuting this and investigating it and bringing it to light,” Mr. Boucher said.

On Sudan, Mr. Roth said the member countries of the UN Security Council have failed utterly in their professed desire to protect the black residents of the regions from attacks by government-backed Arab gunmen.

He specifically blamed China for vetoing effective UN engagement in the region, saying Security Council efforts that have been made to date have been a “charade of feigned protection.”

Mr. Roth urged both China and the United States to support a reference by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the mass killings in Darfur.

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