Joe Conason’s Journal

The human rights questions the State Department doesn't want asked.

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The watchers
Quite a few of the world’s best journalists don’t work for any media organization, at least not directly. They write up files for Human Rights Watch, the worldwide monitor whose reports often strike me as fairer, smarter, more careful and more concerned with serious matters than much of what currently passes for journalism. In fact, as the major news media have reduced their foreign bureaus and cut space and time for international reporting, Human Rights Watch has filled the void with strong, informative, field-based reporting. The HRW annual report released yesterday challenges government propaganda with greater gusto than our timid talking heads, who find so little to criticize and much to celebrate in Bush policy. That tendency has abated lately in the face of the Korean fiasco, if only because the humiliating reality has become impossible to ignore. (Be assured that the usual servility will return if and when an invasion of Iraq begins.)

Right-wing commentators frequently criticize HRW, which has never shared their prejudices or protected their sacred cows. No doubt they will again now, because its report is insufficiently enthusiastic about war. What such critics should remember is that back when their favorite Republican politicians were still sending money, weapons and classified intelligence to Saddam Hussein, HRW exposed his gassing of Kurdish civilians and demanded action against him.

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HRW warns that when the Bush administration divorces human rights advocacy from its security policy, as in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both objectives are undermined. Support for repression encourages terror. It’s an argument with tremendous salience for anyone who wants to defeat al-Qaida.

Unfortunately, even journalists who pay attention to HRW’s work don’t always understand it well enough. Yesterday, a reporter citing the HRW annual report asked State Department spokesman Richard Boucher about the issue of the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay.

Question:“… [T]he Geneva Convention has as a signatory, the United States. How does it reconcile its being a signatory to Geneva Conventions and the conditions that [exist] in Guantanamo Bay? This is one of the issues that was in the [HRW] report.”

Mr. Boucher:“… The United States made very clear that we will treat detainees, Guantanamo or elsewhere, in a manner that’s consistent with the Geneva Convention even though we don’t necessarily agree with all these groups over precisely how they’re covered. So, we have pledged that and we have committed to that and we will try to — we will ensure that we do that, that we do treat detainees consistent with the Geneva Convention.”

The issue isn’t the treatment of the prisoners, whose present conditions are consistent with reasonable standards. What worries HRW is the State Department’s insistence that the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to those captured in Afghanistan (just as the Justice Department says the Constitution doesn’t apply to “prisoners of war,” including American citizens, who are arrested here). One potential danger of this policy is a blowback effect. American service personnel could be taken prisoner by a government that disregards international law — and uses our government’s ambivalence about the Geneva Convention as an excuse to mistreat our people.

That’s one of many reasons why Human Rights Watch is indispensable.
[3:42 p.m. PST, Jan. 15, 2003]

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