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Op-Ed: The Seeds Of a Rights Scandal In Iraq

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed was originally published in the May 14, 2004, issue of The Washington Post.

To ensure that additional human rights embarrassments will not befall the United States, we must examine well-known, high-level and broad-based U.S. policies that have lowered our nation's commitment to basic human rights.

Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, many traumatized and fearful U.S. citizens accepted Washington's new approach with confidence that our leaders would continue to honor international agreements and human rights standards.

But in many nations, defenders of human rights were the first to feel the consequences of these changes, and international humanitarian organizations began expressing deep concern to each other and to high-level U.S. military and government officials about the adverse impact of the new American policies, and to promulgate reports of actual abuses.

Some of their recommendations were quite specific, calling for vigilant independent monitoring of U.S. detention facilities and strict enforcement of Geneva Convention guidelines. Others were more general, describing the impact of these policies on defenders of freedom and human rights around the world. These expressions of concern have been mostly ignored until recently, when photographs of prisoner abuse let Americans finally see some of the consequences of our government's policies in graphic, human terms.

Some prominent concerns were:

• Extended incarceration of arbitrarily detained men of Middle Eastern origin living in the United States -- deprived of access to lawyers or to their families, and never charged with a crime.

• Civilians and soldiers arbitrarily detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without access to legal counsel or being charged with any crime. The secretary of defense announced that they could be held indefinitely even if tried and found to be innocent.

• The secretary of defense's declaration, expressing official policy, that Geneva Convention restraints would not apply to interrogation of prisoners suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.

• Persistent complaints from the International Committee of the Red Cross about prisoner abuse in several U.S. prisons in foreign countries.

• Reports by respected news media outlets that some accused terrorists were being sent to Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other countries where torture was thought to be acceptable as a means of extracting information.

These American decisions had an immediate global impact. In response to urgent requests from human rights defenders from many countries, the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I agreed that it would be helpful to hear directly from a representative group. After the high commissioner's tragic death in Iraq last August, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Bertrand Ramcharan to serve as my co-chair, and in November 2003 the Carter Center brought together leaders of human rights and democracy movements from 41 nations.

We learned from these nonviolent activists that U.S. policies are giving license to abusive governments and even established democracies to stamp out legitimate dissent and reverse decades of progress toward freedom, with many leaders retreating from previous human rights commitments. Lawyers, professors, doctors and journalists told of being labeled as terrorists, often for merely criticizing a government policy or carrying out their daily work. Equally disturbing are reports that in some countries the U.S. government has pushed regressive counterterrorism laws, based on the USA Patriot Act, that undermine democratic principles and the rule of law. Some American policies are being challenged by Congress and the federal courts, but the reversal of such troubling policies is unlikely in countries where legislative and judicial checks and balances are not well developed.

We decided to share the disturbing findings with the media and public officials. In addition to a one-hour roundtable discussion on CNN, participants from Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), the Carter Center, and defenders from Egypt, Kenya and Liberia went to Washington and met with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz; the undersecretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky; and legislative leaders. The group also participated in a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and met with editors of the New York Times and The Post.

In each case, the adverse impact of new U.S. policies on the protection of freedom and human rights was described with specific proof and human experiences. These officials listened attentively and promised to consider ways to alleviate the problem. As subsequent events have revealed, there were no significant reforms at the highest levels of our government.

In many countries, the leaders of human rights and democracy movements represent our best hope for a safer and more just world in which fewer people will succumb to extremism fueled by hatred and fear. These human rights defenders on the front lines of freedom are our real allies, and the United States must make long-term commitments to support -- not undermine -- them.

In the interests of security and freedom, basic reforms are needed in the United States and elsewhere, including restrictions on governments' excessive surveillance powers; reassertion of the public's right to information; judicial and legislative review of detentions and other executive functions; and strict compliance with international standards of law and justice.

The United States must regain its status as the champion of freedom and human rights.

Former president Carter is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta. The center's current report on human rights defenders is available at (Click here to read report.)

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