As Bush prepares to send his nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General to the Senate for its “advice and consent,” let’s recall who Mr. Gonzales is and what his enduring imprint on history may be. Gonzales authored the infamous August 2002 torture memo for the Bush administration that provided hair-brained arguments for discarding the Geneva Conventions. This appointment affirms Bush’s rejection of international oversight of human rights and signals a dramatic right wing shift.
The memo acknowledged that the human rights of prisoners had to be protected as long as the Bush administration accepted the Geneva Convention’s rules. The solution: claim that the Conventions did not cover prisoners caught in Afghanistan or Iraq during wartime operations. In fact, Gonzales would eventually conclude, the Geneva Convention is “obsolete.” The memo quibbled over words like torture and “rough treatment.” Fine distinctions over the words “extreme pain” and "severe pain" were introduced -- the latter didn’t constitute torture in Gonzales’ view.
In the process Gonzales created a category of “rough treatment” that, if instances could be shown not to have been intended to inflict intense pain or permanent physical or mental harm, were not prosecutable. In effect, here is a list, Mr. President, Gonzales implied, of the violent or abusive acts you ought to be able to get away with.
The result: the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal -- as well as dozens of other allegations, reports, witness accounts and admissions of murder, torture, rough treatment, humiliating acts and so on inflicted by US military and intelligence community people that counter the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements against torture by which the US has agreed to abide.
The same day that Bush announced his nomination of Gonzales, the British government released its delayed Human Rights Annual Report 2004. The Blair government insisted that the report, scheduled to be released in September, was delayed only to include a section on the Beslan tragedy which had occurred just as the report was going to press.
The delay probably had other foundations, however. This particular report includes a mild and brief criticism of the Bush administration’s torture policy. Delaying publication until a week after the election seems to have been the main motivation of the Blair government which has been caught between mounting domestic criticism of its close alliance with Bush (despite the unpopularity of the war and the disgust most British people feel toward Bush’s policy of torture) and the need to preserve a friendly relationship with Bush as the November election approached.
In a letter to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose office authored the report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the delay as "disastrous" as it seemed to suggest that some human rights tragedies are more important to the British government than others. HRW further indicated the Blair government’s hypocrisy in its repeated claims that the British government does not support a torture policy and stands by the Geneva Conventions. A British Court of Appeal in August ruled that evidence obtained under torture in third countries may be used in special terrorism cases, provided that the British government has “neither procured the torture nor connived at it.” According to HRW, this ruling implicitly condones torture.
Though the Blair government promised to seek “diplomatic assurances” that torture would not be used, the back door acceptance of torture made by the court violates British law put in place by the Blair government. Torture is prohibited absolutely under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998. There are no exceptions allowed, even during times of war or public emergency. The adoption of a policy of indefinite detention of suspects and exemption from International Criminal Court prosecution for US soldiers accused of human rights abuses further undermines Blair’s claim to a strong stand on human rights.
The denunciation of torture in the government’s Human Rights Annual Report 2004 is made in a small offset five-paragraph box. It describes the Abu Ghraib scandal as “shocking” and that it “included physical beatings, sensory deprivation, severe threats and sexual assault and humiliation.” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is quoted as calling the torture at Abu Ghraib “shameful, disgusting and disgraceful.”
The report goes on to imply that Gonzales’ justifications and hair-splitting definitions of acts prohibited by international conventions are things the British military doesn’t tolerate. Fair treatment and “personal dignity” are imperative. “Physical or mental torture, corporal punishment, humiliating or degrading treatment, or the threat of such are prohibited.” “Stress positions” are prohibited.
The British report’s mild criticism of the US policy of torture outlined by Gonzales is in its own way a bombshell for the Bush administration as the report places what the US military did at Abu Ghraib in the same context as the Darfur genocide, the murder of trade unionists in Colombia, and the Beslan tragedy. Unfortunately, the acknowledgment of US offenses does not seem likely to rupture the close alliance between Blair and Bush. Nor does it seem that this criticism will influence in any way the Bush administration’s views on human rights.
Bush’s appointment of Gonzales signals that he intends to sideline, silence or replace those whom some outside the administration consider to be more reasonable voices such as Colin Powell. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Secretary of State Colin Powell opposed the conclusions in Gonzales’ memo saying it would “reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva Conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops.” Powell also said that adoption of Gonzales’ position would have a “high cost in terms of negative international reaction.” Other countries, Powell pointed out, would refuse to cooperate with the U.S. in the war on terror.
In CCR’s view, “the Secretary of State’s dire predictions have been borne out, and the disregard for law has made the U.S. less safe.” Bush appointment of Gonzales is an indication that he isn’t concerned with the extent to which other countries cooperate with his agenda.
Gonzales’ nomination should be opposed on human rights grounds. It should also be placed in the context of the danger that torture, unilateralism and blatant imperialism have put the people of the U.S. It is an affirmation of the administration’s rejection of human rights and scrapping of the international conventions that also serve to protect US military personnel from abuse.
The Attorney General is often referred to as the highest ranking law enforcement official in the country. If Gonzales holds this position with his apparent disregard for human rights and accepted legal standards, what can we expect under his watch?
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