Brookings praises U.S. leadership on human rights, downplays violations

Abu Ghraib

A post on the Brookings Institution’s “Up Front Blog” on Friday noted the added value of U.S. participation on the UN Human Rights Council, which the Bush administration had shunned due to its inclusion of human rights violators.

Ted Piccone, a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, wrote that “the Obama Administration is proving what a difference a determined, constructive and plain smart strategy on human rights at the United Nations can make.”

By staying away from the Human Rights Council, the U.S. had “ceded important ground to the very governments it criticized for their human rights practices, leaving our closest allies, including Israel, and human rights defenders around the world exposed,” Piccone said.

But now, “after two years of active engagement as a member of the Human Rights Council, the United States can show real results that prove that staying and fighting for our core values is worth the effort.”

He pointed to several positive developments in the field of human rights, in particular the establishment of a special rapporteur to monitor human rights violations in Iran, the Council’s decision to dispatch a commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations committed by the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the dropping of the longstanding “defamation of religions” concept.

“In each case, the United States led the way,” said Piccone, “building cross-regional coalitions in Geneva, deploying top diplomats to capitals, and sticking to principles.”

While the Obama administration may very well deserve some credit for its leadership on these matters, what the Brookings Institution overlooks in its praise is the fact that while pressuring other countries on human rights, the administration has turned a blind eye to some of the most egregious human rights abuses committed by the United States, particularly under the Bush administration.

Despite the widespread acknowledgement that the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were the direct result of policies authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration, there have been no prosecutions of any high-ranking officials.

On December 11, 2008, just over a month after Barack Obama’s election, the Senate issued a bipartisan report which found:

The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

The report concludes:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

So, remarkably, a bipartisan Senate report established that senior officials such as Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and Dick Cheney, may be guilty of war crimes, particularly torture — a crime exhaustively defined in both domestic and international law.

Yet, when confronted with the question of whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate these crimes, Obama wavered. His transition team’s website,, invited Americans to pose questions to his incoming administration and by far, the top question was whether the Obama Justice Department would prosecute “the greatest crimes” of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.

Here is Obama’s response:

We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. … My orientation is going to be moving foward.

Over two years later with no prosecutions, it is clear that Obama is indeed “moving forward” and not looking back. Not even his most ardent supporters continue to express hope that there is any chance for accountability for the crimes of the Bush years.

In arguing for a continued U.S. presence on the UN Human Rights Council, Ted Piccone notes that “critics in Congress are demanding that we not be represented for fear our presence would lend credibility to a dysfunctional body.”

In fact, the reality is that the U.S. has no credibility to lend. Only when the United States deals with its own human rights problems and begins applying the rule of law at home will it be in any position to truly exercise principled leadership on the global stage.

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One response to “Brookings praises U.S. leadership on human rights, downplays violations”

  1. Sam Parry says :

    I am reading Laura Hillenbrand’s amazing story “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” about a former U.S. Olympics distance runner who served on a bomber during WWII and had to ditch in the Pacific only to be picked up by the Japanese and was held not as a POW but as an enemy combatant.

    His abusive and degrading treatment and the treatment of other American detainees during that war and others should help us see how horribly wrong it is to abuse anyone’s basic human rights — and especially how wrong it is to torture a prisoner no matter what the circumstances.

    If we are a country of laws, we are a country of laws. What the Bushies got away with in the so-called war on terror should go down in history as one of our darkest moments. The fact that none of the architects of the policy will be held accountable only makes it worse. Shame on those folks and shame on us for not demanding accountability

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