Misleading by example

A watchdog group's report decries U.S. prisoner abuse, saying "the pictures from Abu Ghraib have become the recruiting posters for Terrorism, Inc."

By Julian Borger - Richard Norton-Taylor - Suzanne Goldenberg

Published January 14, 2005 5:04PM (EST)

America's human rights abuses have provided a rallying cry for terrorists and set a bad example for regimes seeking to justify their own poor rights records, a leading independent watchdog said Thursday. The torture and degrading treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay have undermined the credibility of the United States as a defender of human rights and opponent of terrorism, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says in its annual report.

"The U.S. government is less and less able to push for justice abroad because it is unwilling to see justice done at home," says Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director. The report comes as the Bush administration prepares for the presidential inauguration next week. But the administration has shown little interest in moderating its aggressive approach to its "global war on terror."

Thursday's scathing report argues that the United States has weakened its own moral authority at a time when that authority is most needed, "in the midst of a seeming epidemic of suicide bombings, beheadings, and other attacks on civilians and noncombatants."

"When the United States disregards human rights, it undermines that human rights culture and thus sabotages one of the most important tools for dissuading potential terrorists. Instead, U.S. abuses have provided a new rallying cry for terrorist recruiters, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib have become the recruiting posters for Terrorism, Inc."

The report says that America's disregard of human rights has encouraged other countries to follow suit, for example:

  • Egypt has defended a decision to renew "emergency" laws by referring to U.S. antiterror legislation.

  • Malaysia justifies detention without trial by invoking Guantánamo.

  • Russia cites Abu Ghraib to blame abuse in Chechnya solely on low-ranking soldiers.

    But there are few signs in Washington of a change of approach. The White House secretly persuaded Congress to overturn legislation passed last month by a 96-2 Senate vote that would have imposed restrictions on extreme interrogation methods, the New York Times reported Thursday. Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor nominated to be secretary of state, opposed the measure because "it provides legal protections to foreign prisoners to which they are not now entitled."

    The U.S. military is proceeding with trials of supposed Abu Ghraib torturers, arguing that abuse was the work of a small band of rogue soldiers. Thursday night, the trial of the alleged ringleader, Specialist Charles Graner, culminated in Fort Hood, Texas. A verdict is expected Friday.

    Official inquiries have largely spared the military's top brass and the administration itself, which first approved the loosening of guidelines on interrogation in 2002. Alberto Gonzales, the White House lawyer who approved the guidelines, and who told the president the Geneva Conventions were "obsolete" in the face of the terrorist threat, has been nominated as attorney general.

    Human Rights Watch said senior U.S. officials had tried to pin the blame on young soldiers. It said the United States should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate abuse and bring to justice all those responsible. But the Pentagon said it was "factually incorrect" to say that senior officials were responsible.

    The erosion of human rights has also reached the E.U., Human Rights Watch warns. It points out that the British government refuses to rule out using information extracted from torture in court proceedings. Basic principles of international law are being chipped away in Britain, Steve Crawshaw, the London director of Human Rights Watch, said Thursday. "It was dismaying that it needed a law lords' judgment to rule that detention without trial was not acceptable in a democracy," he told the Guardian. "It is even more dismaying that the British government seems reluctant to concede this."

    Human Rights Watch also points to shortcomings in security laws in Iraq proposed by the United States. In the vast majority of trials it observed there, defendants were detained without judicial warrants and had no prior access to a lawyer.

    And it points to another kind of abuse -- "massive ethnic cleansing" in Darfur, western Sudan. "Continued inaction risks undermining a fundamental principle: that the nations of the world will never let sovereignty stand in the way of their responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities."

  • Julian Borger

    Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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    Richard Norton-Taylor

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    Suzanne Goldenberg

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