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The United States: a Country Beyond the Law

Amnesty International's recent report on human rights abuses at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo highlights a much larger problem: For the Bush Administration, any sign of resistance or limitation to its imperial and unilateral power is intolerable. It is obvious that during this "war on terror," the will of the strongest trumps international law.

By Víctor Flores Olea

June 20, 2005

Original Article (Spanish)    

In its annual report on the state of the world’s human rights conditions for the year 2004, Amnesty International, a well-known organization that monitors respect for human rights in at least 149 countries, dedicated a revealing and tremendously negative chapter to the “conduct” of the Bush administration with regards to this matter. A denunciation by such a prestigious and authoritative organization is significant indeed.

— C-SPAN VIDEO: William Schulz, President of Amnesty Intl., Answers Viewers Questions on Washington Journal, May 27, 00:27:07
— C-SPAN VIDEO: William Schulz, President of Amnesty Intl., Calls for an Independent Probe Into Torture Allegations Against the U.S., May 26, 00:51:42

In its report, Amnesty tells us that “President Bush asserted that the U.S.A. was founded upon and is dedicated to the cause of human dignity. It was a theme of his speech to the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2004. In a statement three months earlier to mark the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the President said that the ‘non-negotiable demands of human dignity must be protected without reference to race, gender, creed, or nationality. Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right, and we are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law.’ The U.S.A.’s detention and interrogation policies in the ‘war on terror’ have left such words ringing hollow.”

[To read the full document, go to “Human Dignity Denied: Torture and Accountability in the War on Terror”: http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR511452004]

Amnesty says that the multitude of humans rights violations in Iraq and the scandalous torture in Abu Ghraib have set a dangerous precedent for the world. But the most significant attention is being focused on what Amnesty says has become a gulag, Guantánamo Bay, the U.S. naval base-turned prison. Hypocrisy, an overarching war mentality, and a disregard for the basic principles of human rights and international legal obligations continue to mark the U.S.’s “war on terror.”

—BBC NEWS VIDEO: Ex-US Interpreter At Guantanamo Tells of Brutal, Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantanamo, May 21, 2004, 00:08:28

That we already knew about the illegal detentions of hundreds of people in Guantánamo does not at all diminish the scandal aroused by Amnesty’s report. On the contrary, this makes the report even more important.

The detention camp at Guantánamo has become a symbol of the Bush Administration’s refusal to put human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its response to the atrocities of September 11.

According to Amnesty, “Hundreds of people of around 35 different nationalities remain held in effect in a legal black hole, many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits ...” Yet, as “evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment mounts, it is more urgent than ever that the U.S. Government bring the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and any other facilities it is operating outside the U.S. into full compliance with international law and standards. The only alternative is to close them down.”

[To read the full document, go to “Guantánamo Bay – A Human Rights Scandal”: http://web.amnesty.org/pages/guantanamobay-index-eng]

Amnesty continues, saying, “It is nearly a year since the United States Supreme Court ruled that U.S. courts have the jurisdiction to consider appeals from detainees in Guantánamo Bay.” It is evident that the Bush Administration has sought to block judicial review every step of the way, and to remain as far above the judicial process as possible.

The most serious of the Bush administration’s anti-judicial actions does violence to one of the cardinal principles of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for checks and balances between the three branches of government. “It seems rather contrary to an idea of a Constitution with three branches that the executive would be free to do whatever they want, whatever they want without a check.” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, 20 April 2004).

But Guantánamo is only the most visible part of a network of detention centers in which prisoners are arrested secretly, without explanation or legal recourse. Interrogations and the practice of detention and confinement during the “war on terror” have systematically and deliberately done violence to the prohibition of torture under the laws of warfare (the Geneva Convention also protects military prisoners). Amnesty even maintains that there are prisoners, held in the U.S., who are then taken to other countries where torture is common practice, so that the U.S. can evade its responsibilities [under the Geneva Convention].

Interrogation techniques officially authorized for use at Guantánamo include isolation, hooding, placing detainees in stress positions for long periods of time, incarceration in a cell with only bread and water, and the use of dogs to inspire fear, (already we have seen it in chilling images of Abu Gharib).

When asked about Amnesty’s allegations at a recent White House press conference, George W. Bush answered simply, “I am aware of the Amnesty International Report and it’s absurd –  It’s an absurd allegation.” He of course followed with the well-known litany: “The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. When there are accusations about certain actions by our people, they are fully investigated in a transparent way.

The truth is different: the Bush administration has authorized the detention and interrogation techniques used in Guantánamo in open violation of international law, despite declarations to the contrary, such as the U.S. President’s directive on February 7, 2002, which stated that the treatment of detainees in the “war on terror” should be humane and consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention, “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.”

It is evident that the enormous “black hole” left open with that conditional executive authorization left the door open to the great abuses that we know about. For example, in December 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, personally authorized those and other techniques of torture to interrogate the prisoners in Guantánamo (Amnesty International report).

Amnesty consequently points out that, disconnected from fact, the words of its leaders are no longer credible, “in the sense that the United States continues respecting human rights and the force of the law."  This disrepute and dishonor have already left a deep imprint, and mark a tremendous loss of prestige for the United States.

The Bush administration continues to argue before the courts that those being held as “enemy combatants” do not qualify for judicial review, and do not qualify for either U.S. or international protections. Amnesty International, on the contrary, maintains that the legal conditions under which prisoners at Guantánamo are being held must be investigated by an independent commission, and that people in charge of torture or any other abuses must be judged. “Any secret detentions or prisoners held incommunicado must end, as well as the secret transfer of prisoners between countries,” Amnesty says.

The main argument expressed by the Bush Administration is that, contrary to the protections under the U.S. Constitution, “enemy combatants” do not enjoy the legal protections under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, nor are they protected under the Geneva Conventions, and only the Executive, that is to say to President Bush, can determine who are “enemy combatants,” to “protect the nation from possible terrorist attacks.” In essence, Amnesty comments, the Bush Administration maintains that suspected terrorists lack any legal claim to humanitarian treatment.

Recently documents have been declassified in which it appears the decision of President Bush to deny prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq the protections of the Geneva Convention follows the recommendation of his White House legal advisor, Alberto Gonzales, since named Attorney General. The “war against the terrorism” is such “an exceptional” case it would eliminate the possibilities that in the future agents of the U.S. who commit war crimes would be judged according to the Geneva Convention.

Of course, without doubt, the United States has made clear that it will refuse to ratify the International Criminal Court, the ratification of which was initiated by [President] Bill Clinton. It is obvious that during this “war on terror,” the will of the strongest trumps international law.

To this, it is necessary to add the legal maneuverings the U.S. government is currently undertaking to avoid extraditing Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela, where he escaped from jail in 1976 after being charged in connection with the bombing of a Cuban airliner which killed 73 people.

—BBC NEWS VIDEO: Protesters Surround Texas Court Considering Fate of Carriles,' June 14, 00:01:25

Again in this case the authorities of the U.S. seem determined to do violence to the international treaties that they have signed and that do not seem to have a law that somehow limits the great power of this empire.

And, to make matters worse, and in confirmation of the scorn of the Bush Administration shows toward the norms of international law and multilateral organizations, the U.S. is only sending a third-ranking diplomat to attend next year’s festivities in San Francisco celebrating the United Nations’ 60th   anniversary. Of course, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice had been invited to the ceremony. For the United States, any sign of resistance or limitation to its imperial and unilateral power is intolerable. For that reason, more than ever, it is worth reiterating the question: is this definitively a country without laws?

The author is a writer and political analyst

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