The same old argument

South Africa's Desmond Tutu, playing a role in the docudrama "Guantanamo," says America's treatment of its prisoners reminds him of aspects of apartheid.

Published October 6, 2004 2:13PM (EDT)

Desmond Tutu is taking his off-Broadway debut in stride. "I'm just waiting for my Tony nominations now," he says from his New York hotel. Tutu, 72, is relaxing for a few minutes after two well-received performances in "Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." Then he is on his way to Rochester, N.Y., Chicago, Philadelphia and back home.

"Guantánamo," written by Gillian Slovo and former Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain, is a documentary-drama based on the transcripts of interviews with those detained at the American military base in Cuba. Tutu was asked by Slovo if he would perform the role of Lord Justice Steyn, a law lord who delivers a damning judgment on the American abuse of human rights at Guantánamo. So Tutu brought forward his trip to America to accommodate his performances at the Culture Project in Greenwich Village, N.Y.

Tutu serves on the Guantánamo Human Rights Commission, which was set up with the aim of ending all forms of internment without trial. He describes the play as "stark" and "devastating" and says it reminded him of his time heading up South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Tutu talks about the people held without charge and without trial, bent over double with bags over their heads. He talks about the sexual abuse and rape allegations and asks, How can a country call itself a democracy if it only acts democratically when it chooses to do so?

"It is inhumane and it is a blot on the West, which claims such high standards of justice and fair play. The justification that the administration has given here is that we are at war. Now if you're at war, those that you capture and the enemy must be prisoners of war. But these are not prisoners of war, they are a new category -- enemy combatants, meaning they don't fall under the auspices of any conventions which seek to protect the rights of prisoners of war."

The fact that this is not a regular war, he says, does not mean the West can lower its standards of justice. "For me, the shattering thing is discovering how there is a sense of deja vu because this was exactly the kind of argument that the South African apartheid government used to make. We asked, Why do you detain people without trial? Why do you ban people? Why do you put people under house arrest without the benefit of due process? And they would say: security of the state.

"You see, they have decided ahead of time that these are terrorists. The whole point of democracy is the recognition that there are rights which you cannot cancel out even when someone is a prisoner. The treatment meted out to these people is torture. And if they had to appear before our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we'd have said that the administration is guilty of gross violation of human rights."

"Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" premiered at the Tricycle theater in London in May and transferred to the West End. It opened off-Broadway in August to a standing ovation.

How did Tutu fit in with the rest of the cast? Had he done any acting as a child. "No." He pauses. "I suppose when you are a public speaker, there is a bit of acting, isn't there?"

Anyone who has seen Tutu talk in public will realize what a natural performer he is -- his hands and eyes flying all over the place, his voice impassioned and resonant, a tiny ball of love. Three years ago, I saw him dancing at the Royal Festival Hall. There were dozens of entertainers on stage, yet you couldn't help but focus on Tutu, pink cassock bobbing up and down, dancing like a Muppet.

One of the things that has most shocked him about Guantánamo is the apathy and acceptance of much of the American public. "It is frightening. Americans are almost shrugging their shoulders. Some seem to have bought into the argument that in order to defend yourselves, you have to use methods such as these, but that is why you have conventions. In times of war, there are rules of war. You can't say no holds barred because then there is no civilization -- it is just a chaos, everybody for themselves.

"It is a deep shame, and the fact that there is hardly any outcry, any sense of outrage at all, despite the evidence of what does, in fact, take place in secret " He trails off. "Oh dear, isn't it just awful?"

Did he ever think, back in the apartheid days of South Africa, that he'd be accusing the U.S. of such violations of human rights? "No. I'm deeply saddened," he says quietly.

He suddenly lifts his voice and spirits. "It is important that one says there are those who are appalled -- the people, for instance, who come to see the play -- and it is important to say, when you talk about the war in Iraq, there are thousands who did come out last February to demonstrate that they were against the war. So we must not tar them all with the same brush. There are those who are appalled by so many features of the policies of this U.S. administration, and are trying to make their voice heard. But it is not easy."

How did he go down in the role of Lord Steyn? The archbishop launches into that great, irrepressible hyena laugh. "Well, I myself had considerable butterflies in the pit of my tummy, but there's hardly any acting, really. The actors just come in and sit down and speak. And people were very nice.

"When I walked on stage on Saturday, they thought they should give me a standing ovation. And at the end they didn't throw any tomatoes. They thought: That poor guy, let's give him another standing ovation. They are nice to old, decrepit men."

By Simon Hattenstone

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