USA: US rights: pot and kettle?
William Fisher «View Bio

Critics of the US state department’s recently released human rights report for 2003 raise an important charge: that it fails to address human rights abuses in the United States, exposing a double standard and raising the question of whether the US has the credibility to launch its ‘Greater Middle East Initiative.’

The initiative, expected to be proposed at the G8 summit in June, is a key element of President George W. Bush’s effort to ‘democratize’ the Middle East. It has been widely criticized by Arab governments in the region as a neocolonialist effort to impose a US model of democracy on a group of widely differing sovereign states. Some Arab leaders – as well as a number of US human rights groups – are asking whether the pot should be allowed to call the kettle black.

The accusation of double standards stems in part from US action in its ‘war on terror,’ including some of the provisions of the Patriot Act, particularly sneak-and-peek search and surveillance, the indefinite detention of US citizens without charge or access to lawyers, the rounding up of hundreds of Muslims on suspicion of immigration violations, new Pentagon rules for its upcoming military tribunals, and the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The detention of US citizens is seen by human rights groups as a particularly egregious breach of constitutional protections. Two citizens, Jose Padilla and Yasser Esam Hamdi, have been classified as enemy combatants and held incommunicado in US military brigs for nearly two years.

While the administration had previously claimed that US national security would be put at risk if the military’s interrogation of Hamdi and Padilla were interrupted by visits from lawyers, it recently decided that this danger no longer existed and granted the men access to their attorneys. At the same time, however, the administration is taking its case to the Supreme Court, where it will claim that there are no legal limits to its power over terrorist suspects.

The Court is being asked to rule on whether US citizens can be subject to unconstrained executive authority.

However, even in granting the two men access to counsel, the Pentagon emphasizes that it is doing so “as a matter of discretion and military authority.” It contends that neither domestic nor international law compels such access.

According to Jamie Fellner, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch, “Under the restrictive rules imposed by the Pentagon, the legal visits are nothing more than an empty façade.… Although the two men can see and speak with their lawyers, they cannot consult with them in any meaningful way.” 

The reason, Fellner says, is that “under the Pentagon rules, the meetings between lawyers and these particular clients are not confidential. Rather than the customary attorney-client privilege, which protects the secrecy of discussions between lawyers and the people they represent, these meetings are completely open to the military. Indeed, a military official is present at each meeting, and everything is videotaped and audio-recorded.” 

Complicating matters further, under the Pentagon’s restrictions every word Hamdi says to his lawyer is classified. After a 90-minute meeting, Frank Dunham, Hamdi’s lawyer, says he still did not know his client’s version of the facts – and cannot ask with military representatives present: the Pentagon told Dunham that information divulged by Hamdi would not be used against him in a criminal prosecution. But Hamdi is not being prosecuted, and anything he says could prolong his detention. The rules cripple Dunham’s ability to build a case for Hamdi’s release. 

The Pentagon has also refused to allow three leading human rights groups to attend and observe military commission trials of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

In a letter to US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch, protested their exclusion from proceedings.

In a written response, the defense department refused to allow Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to attend the military commissions due to “limited courtroom seating and other logistical issues.” 

Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First said, “The space constraints are being used as a pretext to keep out groups who have been critical of the commissions. The Pentagon promised that the trials would be open to the public to reassure people that the trials would be fair. But now it appears ‘open’ really means ‘open only to handpicked press.’” 

Alex Arriaga, director of government relations at Amnesty International USA, warned that the US would further lose credibility in the area of human rights.

“The US state department’s reports on human rights annually criticize other governments for failing to accommodate trial monitors,” Arriaga said. “Allowing media coverage while pleading insufficient space for human rights groups smacks of fear of informed criticism, and will only fuel the perception that the tribunals will be show trials.” 

William Fisher has managed economic development projects in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US state department and the US Agency for International Development