TCS Daily


Judging Human Rights Abuses

By Ilya Shapiro - May 3, 2004 12:00 AM

I write this as George Stephanopoulos, George Will, and General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discuss the abuses perpetrated by certain American troops on the Iraqi captives they were charged with guarding and interrogating. At least six U.S. soldiers face court-martial in the case, and the entire coalition effort to make Iraq safe for democracy faces deserved opprobrium. If we are no better than Saddam, after all, then all of our moralizing (including my own) about good versus evil, civilization versus barbarism, liberal values versus unreformed Islamo-fascism is so much imperialist self-aggrandizement.

This is not even a situation where we can argue about justifications for torture in extreme circumstances -- say, a nuclear bomb set to explode somewhere in Manhattan in 45 minutes -- or rash acts in the fog of battle. No, this is a case, seemingly isolated for the moment, that illustrates why we, the great liberators and pacifiers, are and must be held to a higher standard of conduct. Indeed, we welcome this standard, as it provides the opportunity to show that, unlike our illiberal enemies, we are not war criminals, but rather enlightened heralds of civil rights and civil liberties.

The honorable actions of the overwhelming majority of our troops -- take the brave exploits of NFLer Pat Tillman and his Special Forces comrades in Afghanistan as but one recent example -- belie the leftist cants about baby-killing, Western imperialism, and Bush-is-Hitler. They debunk the anti-American slurs involving Zionist conspiracies and blood-for-oil Faustian bargains.

Which is why it is a sad and frustrating day when this, our "soft power" of moral suasion, is undermined by the actions of rogue human rights abusers. We must punish the criminals who humiliated the Iraqi detainees and make clear (particularly to those who get their news from Al-Jazeera) that such actions are not representative of America, or of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Yet Amnesty International said that it has uncovered a "pattern of torture" of Iraqi prisoners by coalition troops, and called for an independent investigation into the claims of abuse. And other "leading" human rights groups have been up in arms about the treatment of Guantanamo prisoners since before there were any Guantanamo prisoners.

Now, I don't know the extent of the instant abuses -- though there does not appear to be even an unofficial policy permitting such blatant violations of the Geneva Convention (were that anachronism of international law to be applied to the ragtag miscreants seized in Fallujah and Najaf) -- but the Red Cross and other independent investigators have vindicated American practices in Guantanamo. And it seems that any government taking human rights so seriously as to allow its policies to be subjected to review by an impartial judiciary deserves the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, part of the reason the Arab world sees us as decadent is because we allow public debate and criticism: clear signs of weakness and disunity to a populace accustomed to a governmental model of iron-fisted rule.

One would think that the human rights "establishment" would come to our side, that this universal issue of human rights would finally align traditionally left-wing organizations with even a Republican administration's policy aimed at replacing secret police with rule of law, raising women's standing in society, and generally ending oppression. One would be wrong.

To wit, the United States is continually singled out by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and others, for "abuses" ranging from capital punishment to the racial profiling of motorists. And the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) entertains many more resolutions aimed at the U.S. than at China, Pakistan, Russia, and the Sudan combined -- and you may recall that Libya headed the UNHRC during that brief period when the U.S. was passed over for membership.

Then again, the UNHRC did recently vote (again) to condemn Cuba's human rights practices -- by a vote of 22 in favor, 21 opposed, and 10 abstentions. So apparently 31 countries out of 53 thought that imprisoning and torturing 75 dissidents for criticizing the Castro regime, the action specifically targeted in this particular resolution, warranted no censure. While the negative votes of such human rights powerhouses such as Congo, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe are understandable, how does one explain the "no" votes of those great democracies India and South Africa? Or the abstentions of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay? -- in contradistinction to the "yes" votes of the other seven Latin American members of the Commission, including Honduras, which sponsored the resolution and earned the Cuban ambassador's wrath as a lackey of the United States.

Oh, and while North Korea was also wrist-slapped by the UNHRC, (EU-sponsored!) resolutions to condemn Russia and Zimbabwe were tabled, as was an American one directed at China.

It would all be so laughable if international organizations and institutions like Amnesty and the UNHRC weren't held up by the bien pensants as arbiters of human rights in the world, and if that same elite intelligentsia didn't control the foreign policies of France, Germany, post-3/11 Spain, and the Democratic Party. Heck, even the new Canadian Prime Minister, the Liberal Paul Martin, recognized on his visit to Washington last week that future multinational action would have to be run through some sort of caucus of democracies rather than the UN General Assembly or Security Council.

In the end, what the six soldiers sitting in the brig are accused of doing is reprehensible, and they will receive the justice they deserve. Not because they violated some barometer of international opinion, or drew the ire of a morally relativistic NGO, but because Americans are better than that, and the world knows it.

Ilya Shapiro, currently clerking on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, last wrote for TCS on the Bush press conference he'd like to see.


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