Human rights advocate speaks to law school about war on terror, torture abroad

Gabor Rona challenged everything from U.S. policy to interrogation tactics used on detainees.

by Kathryn Nelson

The ongoing war in Iraq and the policies of the U.S. administration have led to much controversy and haven’t failed to touch even the University’s politics.

Gabor Rona, the international legal director for Human Rights First, spoke to students Friday at the University’s Law School about the impact of executive authority both abroad and at home.

Rona, who previously worked as a legal adviser for the Red Cross in Geneva, said the United States has practiced widespread detainee abuse since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Rona said the United States went to great lengths to collect information about terrorist organizations and bent internationally recognized laws to do so.

Reading from a leaflet that circulated in Afghanistan, Rona said the United States resorted to more creative tactics for collecting information.

The leaflet said people would receive “wealth beyond your wildest dreams,” for helping the United States gather intelligence about terrorist groups.

Rona said tactics like these caused heightened tribal animosity in the region, and many people were turned in to the government who had no ties to illegal organizations.

Although nothing is inherently wrong with the government seeking information, Rona said, there needs to be a legal process in which innocent people aren’t detained.

“That’s where the process broke down,” he said.

Since 9-11, Rona said the presidential administration monitored the actions of American citizens as well.

Rona used examples such as the story of an elderly woman who donated money to a charity abroad that was actually a front for a terrorist organization and a citizen who taught English to the child of an al-Qaida member. Both were deemed enemy combatants by the government, he said.

No doubt some of the detainees were bad actors, Rona said, but many were detained with no connection to criminality.

“It’s a trigger mechanism for more abuse,” he said.

Extraordinary rendition, the act of transferring suspected terrorists to countries abroad for interrogation, was another facet in the War on Terror, Rona said.

Many people believe that because information is being expressed during an interrogation, it’s acceptable to torture, he said.

“Not only does (torture) not work, but brutalizes the interrogator” and the victim, he said.

Rona stressed the link between humane treatment and successful intelligence gathering.

“Progress in counter terrorism security and human rights are complementary – they are not competition,” he said.

First-year law student Zainab Akbar said her identity as a Muslim is closely tied to her interest in human rights.

Akbar said she’s currently taking a law class with adjunct professor Robert Delahunty, who co-authored a memo in 2002 outlining the legality of torture against terrorist members.

Akbar said it’s important for someone to balance the perspective of Delahunty at the University.

Human Rights Center development coordinator Patrick Finnegan said he felt America should be a model for human rights and that he finds it

“profoundly disturbing” that the government isn’t following the standards they first created after World War II.

Still, Rona said some people believe the ends justify the means in regard to torture and inhumane treatment.

“Even after the next election (our reputation) may be hard to get back,” he said.