Human Rights Watch Blasts the Bush Administration

In the euphoria surrounding the election of a new United States president and the departure of a largely detested one, Human Rights Watch's annual report, issued on the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, has passed mostly without notice by the mainstream press.

While Asia Sentinel does not normally carry stories about non-Asian affairs, within the document's 576 pages lie some damning indictments of the outgoing administration that bear further scrutiny, especially by Americans who thought they were voting for security after the destruction of the World Trade Towers and should wake up to the fact that they were voting for repression instead.

It isn't just Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay or the widely publicized other abuses that have arisen because of what the administration dubbed a "war on terror." Human Rights Watch describes a wider abdication of leadership in the defense of human rights in which the US, for better or worse, played a major role in the past. Writing about this abdication of leadership, the authors write this passage. We reprint it here in full:

"No government bears greater blame for this abdication than the United States under President George W. Bush. As is widely known, the Bush administration chose to respond to the serious security challenge of terrorism by ignoring the most basic requirements of international human rights law.

"Its decision, made not by low-level 'bad apples' but at the highest levels of government, was to 'disappear' suspects into secret detention facilities run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where their detention was unacknowledged, subject them to torture and other abusive interrogation including 'waterboarding' (mock execution by drowning) and various "stress" techniques, and detain them for years on end without charge or trial at Guantanamo.

"The consequences have been disastrous. This flouting of international human rights law generated resentment that was a boon to terrorist recruiters, and discouraged international cooperation with law-enforcement efforts, particularly in countries that are most likely to identify with the victims and to learn of suspicious activity.

"The Bush administration's misconduct profoundly undermined US influence on human rights. Sometimes Washington could still productively promote human rights: when the issue was the right to free speech or association, which is still widely respected in the United States; when the US government enjoyed the added leverage of a major funding relationship with the government in question; or when the atrocities were so massive, such as widespread ethnic or political slaughter, that the United States could oppose them without facing accusations of hypocrisy.

"More typically, however, when the issue was human rights abuses that the Bush administration practiced itself, the United States was forced to cede the field. Nowhere was this more visible than at the Human Rights Council. Washington rightly criticized the many shortcomings of this new institution, but […] it is far from a lost cause.

"Rather than work to realize its considerable potential, the Bush administration abandoned it from the start. In part that may have been a concession to reality, since given the Bush administration's human rights record, the United States would have had a hard time getting elected.

"But a good part of the motivation seems to have been the Bush administration's arrogant approach to multilateral institutions. Instead of undertaking the difficult but essential task of building a broad global coalition for human rights, Washington tended to throw rhetorical grenades from the sidelines when it did not get its way. With one of the human rights movement's most powerful traditional allies having given up without a fight, it is no surprise that those allies who remain on the council face an uphill struggle."

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Country by country, the Bush administration left a considerable mess for the new administration to clean up. Some examples:

  • In Pakistan, the US "provided massive assistance to the Pakistani military while doing little to rein in its Inter-Services Intelligence's use of torture and the "disappearance" of suspects."

  • In Saudi Arabia, the United States and Britain "praised and promised to study and learn from a Saudi program that keeps thousands of terrorism suspects detained without charge or trial, offering 'reeducation' instead." US pressure on the Saudi kingdom for human rights was "imperceptible in a year that saw visits by President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and Secretary of State Rice.

  • In Turkmenistan, the US's "interest in Turkmenistan's energy wealth prompted active engagement with the Turkmen government and a reluctance to prioritize human rights. President Bush met President Berdymukhamedov on the sidelines of the April 2008 NATO summit

  • The United States remains Egypt's largest donor, providing approximately US$1.3 billion in military aid and US$415 million in economic assistance in 2007. President Bush on a brief visit, "praised Egypt's "vibrant civil society" a day before security forces arrested 30 people holding a peaceful human rights protest. The administration also waived congressional restrictions conditioning US$100 million in aid to Egypt on improving human rights conditions.

  • Israel, the largest recipient of aid from the US, Washington "has not made any funds conditional on Israel improving its adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law."

  • The US upgraded relations with Libya despite its human rights abuses. In August the US and Libya signed a claims settlement agreement, indemnifying each other against outstanding lawsuits for Libyan bombings and US airstrikes in the 1990s. In September US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya, saying she "respectfully" raised human rights concerns with al-Qadhafi. Libya reportedly continues to share intelligence on militant Islamists with Western governments.

In the United States itself, Human Rights Watch found, "criminal justice policy continues to raise serious human rights concerns. 2008 saw the resumption of executions after a seven-month hiatus and continued growth of the US prison population, already the world's largest. Also in 2008, Human Rights Watch confirmed that there are more than 2,500 US prisoners serving sentences of life without possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18; no other country imposes this penalty on juvenile offenders."

Aside from the organization's concerns over the infamous Guantanamo Bay facility where more than 200 Muslims suspected of terrorism will remain incarcerated until President Barack Obama's new administration can figure out what to do with them over the next year, the report is particularly damning on the Bush administration's torture policy, the maintenance of secret CIA prisons, in which two to three dozen former CIA detainees "remain disappeared," their whereabouts unknown, although many are believed to have been unlawfully rendered to countries such as Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Algeria.

The United States, the report also says, continued during the Bush administration to deny refugee protection to individuals in a wide variety of cases, including rape victims forced into domestic servitude by rebel groups. Despite legislation passed by Congress giving the administratin the power to waive such bars in deserving cases, "the exercise of this dicretion has been painstakingly slow."

There are numerous cases scattered through the voluminous report in which US officials have sought to act on the side of those protesting human rights abuses. But, the authors point out, the withdrawal of the US from active advocacy "is the logical consequence of the Bush administration's decision to combat terrorism without regard to the basic rights not to be subjected to torture, 'disappearance,' or detention without trial.

"Against that backdrop, Washington's periodic efforts to discuss rights have been undercut by justifiable accusations of hypocrisy. Reversing that ugly record must be a first priority for the new administration of Barack Obama if the US government is to assume a credible leadership role on human rights."