Great Leap Forward

Barack Obama yesterday ordered the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and CIA secret prisons, closing the book on the Bush administration’s controversial “war on terror” policies. (Financial Times)

Thank you for restoring dignity to the United States, President Obama.

He is striking the right notes in my book – banning torture, closing Guantanamo Bay, capping the salaries of White House staff to $100K (unlike a certain disappointing someone when he was elected in 2007)

A great leap forward, or a just return to order? Either way, fabulous news. Cheers to GOOD news, for once.

War Crimes etc

You know how sometimes you hear or read about something completely random or that you had never thought about before, and then, the next day, you see this concept/word/thing somewhere else, and you wonder: “coincidence…? I think not…”

A few weeks ago, while in Ghana, C. and I asked what a plant was, and we were told it was “water greens”, which is a variant of the famous potato greens. Now, having spent about 4 months there over the last year, we ate potato greens over and over, but never even heard of water greens. That afternoon, we saw a woman with a large bowl on her head, filled with – what we thought was – potato greens. When she started calling “water greeeeeens! wateeeeeeeer greeeens!”, we had the “coincidence” moment…


The point is that I was reading a fascinating investigative piece by Philippe Sands in Vanity Fair, about the way in which “extreme interrogation techniques” became a tactic in the American strategy in the War on Terror, and that it seems that everywhere I look these days, I’m reading about this topic (recently in the New Yorker). This strikes me, since it doesn’t seem particularly topical – perhaps it’s one of those “coincidence” moments. Getting to the point now, I promise.

Sands’ piece is enlightening, and shows exactly how these measures were decided on at the highest level of the administration:

The fingerprints of the most senior lawyers in the administration were all over the design and implementation of the abusive interrogation policies. Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse.

We have all heard the “trickle up” version of the story – a few bad apples, which took it upon themselves to commit some pretty serious abuse on prisoners. Not so, my friends. Not so. It’s extremely unfortunate, and, more importantly, worrying, that the administration managed to completely circumvent the Geneva Conventions. One of my last assignments in grad school was a presentation discussing breaches in jus in bello (laws of war) using the case study of the continued American presence in Iraq. During my research, I learned — much to my dismay — that the American administration had essentially managed to ignore its legal obligations, while pretending to uphold the system on the whole.

Douglas Feith , former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, explains this quite well to Sands:

Douglas Feith had a long-standing intellectual interest in Geneva, and for many years had opposed legal protections for terrorists under international law. He referred me to an article he had written in 1985, in The National Interest, setting out his basic view. Geneva provided incentives to play by the rules; those who chose not to follow the rules, he argued, shouldn’t be allowed to rely on them, or else the whole Geneva structure would collapse. The only way to protect Geneva, in other words, was sometimes to limit its scope. To uphold Geneva’s protections, you might have to cast them aside[…]
How had the administration gone from a commitment to Geneva[…] to the president’s declaration that none of the detainees had any rights under Geneva? It all turns on what you mean by “promoting respect” for Geneva, Feith explained.
Geneva didn’t apply at all to al-Qaeda fighters, because they weren’t part of a state and therefore couldn’t claim rights under a treaty that was binding only on states. Geneva did apply to the Taliban, but by Geneva’s own terms Taliban fighters weren’t entitled to P.O.W. status, because they hadn’t worn uniforms or insignia. That would still leave the safety net provided by the rules reflected in Common Article 3— but detainees could not rely on this either, on the theory that its provisions applied only to “armed conflict not of an international character,” which the administration interpreted to mean civil war[…]

On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum that turned Guantánamo into a Geneva-free zone. As a matter of policy, the detainees would be handled humanely, but only to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity. “The president said ‘humane treatment,’ ” Feith told me, inflecting the term sourly, “and I thought that was O.K. Perfectly fine phrase that needs to be fleshed out, but it’s a fine phrase—‘humane treatment.’ ” The Common Article 3 restrictions on torture or “outrages upon personal dignity” were gone.

“This year I was really a player,” Feith said, thinking back on 2002 and relishing the memory. I asked him whether, in the end, he was at all concerned that the Geneva decision might have diminished America’s moral authority. He was not. “The problem with moral authority,” he said, was “people who should know better, like yourself, siding with the assholes, to put it crudely.”

What really gets to me is the fact that a country such as the United States could entertain the thought that some people do not have rights (the Geneva Conventions are the one and only safeguard during a time of war – it is specifically meant to provide guidelines for the treatment of human beings in war, when human rights are ignored – that is the very nature of war) Contrarily to what I recently heard in a Ghanaian court of law – that rights “are not absolute” – I am absolutely convinced that every single individual is entitled to legal protection and due process, no matter what his crimes or background is. That is the very basis of equality and justice.

I find it so unfortunate that the United States, a nation that has (had?) the power to really positively influence the world, with progressive, enlightened and benevolent paradigms, has sunk to this level of disrespect for human rights.

Torture, which the Sands article is about, is a case in point. I just recently found out about Amnesty International’s Unsubscribe initiative:

Unsubscribe is a movement of people united against human rights abuses in the ‘war on terror’. Thousands of unsubscribers have now joined up. The threat of terrorism is real, but trampling over human rights and abandoning our values is not the answer. From Guantanamo Bay, Rendition, Torture and Waterboarding – we unsubscribe.

(warning – graphic images)

Someone recently pointed out that such behavior on the part of a government is inevitable in times of war – and they quickly reminded me about the French abuses during the war in Algeria in the 50-60s. But is it really inevitable? Besides the obvious moral and legal objections, in the long run, doesn’t this type of tactic weaken the overall strategy and the likelihood of a positive outcome?


A really great piece by the editors of The Washington Monthly regarding the use of torture by the United States.

“It is in the hopes of keeping the attention of the public, and that of our elected officials, on this subject that the writers of this collection of essays have put pen to paper. They include a former president, the speaker of the House, two former White House chiefs of staff, current and former senators, generals, admirals, intelligence officials, interrogators, and religious leaders. Some are Republicans, others are Democrats, and still others are neither. What they all agree on, however, is this: It was a profound moral and strategic mistake for the United States to abandon long-standing policies of humane treatment of enemy captives. We should return to the rule of law and cease all forms of torture, with no exceptions for any agency.”

Well said.

Lifting the Taboo on Torture

“President Bush vetoed an intelligence bill Saturday, saying he objected to provisions in it that prohibited the CIA from using harsh interrogation techniques. The bill would limit the CIA to techniques approved by the Army field manual.”NPR – All Things Considered

Our national security strategy cannot rely on dehumanizing others – America cannot preserve its security by whatever means necessary. Even though President Bush uses euphemisms such as “harsh interrogation techniques” instead of “torture”, the result is the same – these techniques represent blatant violations of human rights. The fact that there is a movement towards making torture an acceptable practice is extremely dangerous – can we really afford to have this type of paradigmic shift on torture?

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibits, and in fact seeks to abolish the use of torture in all its forms, was ratified by the United States in 1994. Moreover, there are certain norms in international law that fall under the jus cogens category, which means that they apply to all subjects of international law, regardless of the status of ratification of treaties or conventions. The prohibition of torture falls under that category. This type of peremptory norm exists in the case of torture, slavery and genocide. Indeed, the international community – including the United States – recognizes that torture, in all its forms, is perfectly indefensible, whether morally or legally.

While torture might be efficient in obtaining information, it is even more efficient in reinforcing hatred towards those who perpetrate it. Not only does this kind of position reinforce pre-existing hatred, but this is precisely the platform used by extremists to recruit. While I am not suggesting that prisoners should not be suggested to interrogation, I believe that this can be achieved without stooping to the same level of dehumanization and complete disregard for human rights at which terrorists and extremists operate.

If we don’t abide by a minimum standard of respect for human life, then we surely cannot expect others to do so. If the use of torture is appropriate for our national security strategy, than surely it is an appropriate strategy for others as well. The world is watching. If we do not uphold fundamental values – including respect for human rights and prisoner rights – then we are implicitly allowing that same attitude from others.

Dangerous times indeed.