Our Human Rights Show

Countries abusing their prisoners say they are following America's practices

 President Bush remains firmly committed to a foreign policy rooted in human freedom. . . . We join men and women around the world in marking the anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, December 14, Human Rights Day Commemoration, Treaty Room, Washington, D.C.

The administration has taken the position now that someone who is making the charge of having been tortured [at Guantánamo], which is a violation of U.S. law, may not be permitted to disclose the specifics of his interrogation. . . . It is unthinkable [that the person] cannot describe what has happened to him [and] get judicial relief . . . because Al Qaeda may not be able to . . . train their operatives to avoid those techniques.
Republican senator
Arlen Specter, proposing a bill, with Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, to restore habeas corpus rights to Guantánamo prisoners denied them by the Military Commissions Act of 2006

Among the heroes and heroines of my youth was Eleanor Roosevelt, the ceaseless conscience of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That first lady in constant motion was a tribune for the rights of labor, women, blacks—anyone left behind. In her later years, she lived in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood that gave this newspaper its name. She fit right into the cauldron of protest.

Eleanor Roosevelt: "Her International Magna Carta" repealed by Bush
photo: usinfo.state.gov
Eleanor Roosevelt: "Her International Magna Carta" repealed by Bush

Roosevelt may have regarded as her most vital achievement the work she did in drafting and getting the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. She told the delegates on that day that what they were about to do "may well become the international Magna Carta" of all people on this earth.

An index of her unfulfilled expectation so far is the inattention in this country to Human Rights Day, observed on December 10. It was not marked on any of the calendars I have. I heard of no large-scale celebration of this historic day, not even in Union Square. But four days later, Condoleezza Rice did trumpet the remembrance of Human Rights Day by the same president who, with Dick Cheney, had made sure the new Military Commissions Act continued to shelter the CIA's secret prisons and provided amnesty for CIA agents who may have transgressed our War Crimes Act during this war on terror.

One person who remembered Human Rights Day was Ruth Barrett Rendler, deputy director of the Minneapolis-based Center for the Victims of Torture. In the December 10 Minneapolis Star Tribune—a newspaper that has continued the vigorous oversight of the executive branch that the Republican Congress declined—Barrett Rendler recalled Eleanor Roosevelt's essential role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the context of its present deterioration here:

"Since September 11, 2001, our leaders . . . have promoted and condoned the use of torture. They have authorized secret detention and the suspension of due process. They have permitted 'extraordinary rendition'— putting people on planes to be flown to a country where they will be tortured."

Barrett Rendler then made news—while the rest of the press largely ignored Human Rights Day and her report. She continued: "The United Nations special investigator on torture recently reported that several countries justify their mistreatment of prisoners by saying they are merely following America's example. Our colleagues fighting human rights abuses in other countries have told us much the same." (Emphasis added.)

She then listed a number of fundamental changes necessary for this country to begin the long process of redeeming itself around the world both for its betrayal of Roosevelt's "international Magna Carta" and its betrayal of our own Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights: "First, there must be an end to secret detention, abusive interrogation, and 'extraordinary rendition' . . . and an end to the secrecy under which these programs have operated.. . . [W]ithout congressional oversight, they are likely to continue.

"Second, lawmakers must prohibit the use of coerced testimony . . .

"Third, Congress must restore the ability for all detainees to challenge their treatment in court—habeas corpus. This is a necessary tool to prevent torture. If our laws prohibit torture but we don't provide tools for enforcement, it is a loophole for continued abuse."

Senators Patrick Leahy, Arlen Specter, Dick Durbin, and others will be trying to pass a bill in that chamber to restore these habeas rights. In the House, John Conyers, Ed Markey, Jerry Nadler, and others are sure to agree. But what of the new Democratic majority's congressional leadership?

I may have missed it, but I haven't heard Nancy Pelosi on this and other malignant parts of the Military Commissions Act. As for Harry Reid, in the December 29 Chicago Sun-Times, Anne Flaherty reported:

"Sen. Harry Reid 'would support attempts to revisit some of the more extreme elements of the bill,' including stripping detainees of habeas corpus rights, although no immediate action is planned, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley." (Emphasis added.)

What the hell are Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi waiting for? What do Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards have to say? The front-runner in the other party, John McCain, was so loud in his denunciation of the "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" punishment of detainees. But he later said he was very pleased to vote for the Military Commissions Act and its denial of habeas rights to those same people.

In Minneapolis, Barrett Rendler gave us the ultimate answer: "Eleanor Roosevelt warned about human rights that 'without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.' "

As usual, as Roosevelt knew from hard experience, it's up to us. Ask Chuck and Hillary if they care.

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