U.S. becoming the monster it fears

Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross publicly criticized the U.S. government for the prolonged and seemingly indefinite detention of 600 people in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The committee’s action illuminates two distinct but related problems: Current U.S. policy offends common human decency and violates international law.

The committee delegates are the only outsiders with access to the detainees captured in Afghanistan, Bosnia and possibly elsewhere. The committee normally visits under strict confidentiality – they usually reveal findings only to the detaining government. They prefer quiet diplomacy because governments are more likely to give them access. Accordingly, the committee’s public announcement was extraordinary.

There have been 32 attempted suicides by 21 individuals over the last two years, reflecting the psychological pressure on the detainees. The committee claims this largely results from the detainees’ uncertainties about their future, though it is not the only cause. The Washington Post reported Aug. 19 that former detainees claim U.S. officials subject detainees to extraordinarily lengthy interrogations, in which detainees stand for prolonged periods of time and are subjected to sleep deprivation or other disorienting tactics such as forced injections.

Representatives for the detainees have also alleged torture, including detainees shot with rubber bullets while tied to a pole or made to kneel cruciform in the sun until they pass out. Richard Bourke, an attorney for one detainee, aptly framed these practices as “good old-fashioned torture, as people would have understood it in the Dark Ages.”

These practices offend ideas of common human decency, which forbids such treatment irrelevant of any treaty or law. In legal terms, both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Geneva Conventions forbid the interrogation techniques alone as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The United States ratified these agreements without relevant reservations.

The Bush administration gives two justifications for its actions: self-defense and the words “enemy combatant.”

Self-defense is not an acceptable justification. Neither of the aforementioned treaties’ prohibitions of torture or cruel treatment is subject to derogation in times of emergency. Hence, the war on terrorism establishes no legal exception, much less the perpetual one the administration asserts.

The administration dug up the “enemy combatant” to avoid obligations under modern international law. The title is useful because its creation and use predates almost all relevant international human rights and humanitarian law. The administration found an archaic title because none currently accepted would allow it sufficient flexibility to mistreat those under its control.

Finally, neither a fair hearing for each detainee nor cessation of cruel tactics will compromise our safety.

A fair hearing for all detainees as to their guilt or innocence and their status under international law poses no threat to security. The United States need not set them free; rather, detainees should have their day in court, and if they are guilty of terrorist acts, there should be consequences.

U.S. officials must also cease cruel and degrading interrogation tactics as well as torture. As early as October 2002, the military admitted detainees in Guantanamo Bay are not valuable sources of intelligence. As such, the “stress and duress” practices gather us little information on terrorist activities while lowering us to the level of our enemies.

The current practices of cruel and degrading interrogation tactics and indefinite detention at the administration’s “say-so” are unacceptable. Historically, this country has been a strong advocate for human rights and the law and must reassert that principle in its own conduct. Others in the future will use our conduct as justification for their own violations, as the Malaysian government has already done with its own arbitrary detentions.

If current trends continue, U.S. soldiers or civilians might become victims of such wrongs. For both our own interests, as well as human rights concerns, we must demand our government set the right example by protecting human rights in Guantanamo Bay.