Thursday, February 25, 2010

Can the Example of the South African TRC Help America Shed Light on Its Own Human Rights Violations?

Cell Block at Guantanamo Bay, Courtesy of Joe Carter's blog post on The First Things, though the picture is originally from a report written by Seton Hall University professor and Gitmo detainee lawyer Mark Denbeaux and his students.

While reading a blog that I really like, WitnessLA, which generally focuses on social justice issues in Los Angeles, I came across a post about the 2006 suicides of three detainees at Guantanamo Bay. An advance version of a March Harper's article by Scott Horton alleges that the deaths were not suicides but rather murders that were covered up by the US government. The article, unsurprisingly, has stirred up a lot of controversy on the web, with some people defending Horton's work and others criticizing him. With the way the blogosphere works nowadays, it sort of seems like this is merely a conduit to air blogger grievances, jealousies, and rivalries, and of course, there is a distinct left/right taste to each article or post out there. But there's certainly something to all of this brouhaha.

I started to do some research on the issue, but it quickly became a rabbit hole I didn't want to fall down--there are thousands of pages of redacted government documents, weird conspiracy theories, and a lot of very rabid bloggers. Dangerous territory. If you want to start down that path, check out the WitnessLA post first--it puts up a couple of links that will get you going in the right direction, and those articles will take you to links, which will take you to links, which will take you to links--you get the idea.

I had the same feeling reading Horton's article that I did during the entirety of my research into human rights in the African countries in which m2m works: it made me sick to my stomach. Regardless of whether or not what he wrote is true, here's the reality of the United States today: my country has recently committed potential human rights violations that should be investigated and brought to light.

The domestic stuff is bad enough. There are over 2,500 US prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed while they were minors. The US is the only country in the world that allows this (we don't even get a "thank god for Iran" on that one). The US has the highest population of incarcerated people, at 2.4 million, which is higher than the entire population of Lesotho, or, for that matter, the general populations in 14 of the 50 states. Prison overcrowding is out of control-in California, some facilities are approaching 300% of their capacity, with the California prison system as a whole operating at double its capacity. As a side note, in Nigeria, infamous for its corrupt, authoritarian, anti-rights government, prisons also operate at 200-300% of their intended capacity. Farms have long been exempt from restrictions on child labor that exist in other sectors and enforcement is often lax, meaning that minor farmworkers are often subjected to long workdays (12-14 hours), are paid below minimum wage, and are at risk illness and injury from pesticide poisoning, heatstroke, and other unsafe working conditions. There are persistent racial and ethnic disparities nationwide in terms of incarceration rates; access to healthcare, education, and housing; and other areas, including rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence, violent crime, and poverty. The maternal mortality rate for African American women is three times higher than that of white women. They also share the largest burden of HIV/AIDS, which is the leading cause of death for African American women aged between 25 and 34. African American men have a 7 in 10 chance of being incarcerated at one point in their lives. And I won't get into the treatment of immigrants, both legal and illegal, here because it's too complex (and maddening) to get started on. If you want to read about any of this, check out Human Rights Watch's 2010 World Report, or Amnesty International's 2009 Report.

OK, so I'll get back on track to Guantanamo. There's a lot of evidence out there that under the Bush administration, a long list of violations of American and international laws occurred, ranging from straight up human rights abuses to possible war crimes, during the so-called War on Terror. This includes secret detentions, "renditions" of suspected terrorists to countries without adequate protections against torture, violations of the Geneva Convention, abuse and killings of civilians in conflict zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, degrading treatment of detainees (we've all seen the Abu Ghraib pictures), and outright torture of suspected terrorists at US-run facilities. Torture methods have included "walling" (throwing a prisoner repeatedly into walls), waterboarding, beatings, withholding of medical treatment, and psychological abuse, including sleep deprivation, exploiting phobias, and sexual degradation. President Obama has made a few steps in the right direction, such as opening investigations into waterboarding and other forms of torture and ordering the closure of Gitmo and secret CIA interrogation facilities, but he hasn't gone far enough.

In early 2009, Senator Pat Leahy called for a truth commission into alleged human rights abuses perpetrated under Bush. President Obama's response, much like his reaction after announcing that waterboarding was torture and would stop, was to pronounce that it was time to be forward-looking. Investigations into wrongdoing would continue internally, he asserted, but it would be best if the American public (and I guess the world) got over it and moved on.

An independent truth commission is the only way to restore the United States' name in this one instance (we have a lot more to answer for that will continue to tarnish our name, but let's be realistic and say the US isn't going to ever address all the crappy stuff we've done to our own citizens and non-citizens and others around the world since before 1776). We're never going to get Bush, Cheney, and others in the administration in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that's may not the best way to do it.

I think to some extent, President Obama is right--we do have to move forward, and we're (with hope) in a new era of governance. But to do so, we need to witness the truth of what happened so that we can move on. A truth commission similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established after the fall of the Apartheid regime would allow the practices of the US government over the last ten years or so in terms of counterterrorism, the War on Terror, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan, Somalia, and other places) to come to light and to be a part of American, and global, consciousness. We'd be able to understand the terrible decisions that the US made--whether misguided or worse--and be able to initiate a dialogue of reconciliation with the American public and perhaps the world, especially those parts of the Muslim world that revile what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan--I'm talking about those Muslims who turned away from us after 9/11. Not those who celebrated the attacks, or masterminded and carried them out, but those who grieved with us and sent us support and condolences. Those who condemned the attacks in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania, only to deplore the United States' subsequent actions and direct their anger at us. How many terrorists did we create through abuses at Guantanamo and other facilities--both ex-detainees and others? When you think about it, isn't Gitmo more than anything else a fantastic recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda to prove that the American government is as hypocritical and abusive as it's always maintained?

Although the TRC in SA (and other places) was fraught with problems, and though there is still no justice and little equality for the majority of the black and coloured population living in South Africa, the truth was aired out. The South African public and the world learned about the deepest and darkest secrets of the Apartheid government and even of the African National Congress (ANC, Mandela's party, which carried out the brunt of the liberation struggle). It's widely acknowledged that if nothing else, the TRC brought to light crimes that no one would have ever known about and recognized and documented the spectrum of abuses made possible under Apartheid.

It's possible that justice for crimes committed by a government against its own people and against those in other countries can never be had, from genocides and war crimes to smaller scale violations of human rights. We cannot give justice to everyone that the United States has wronged in the last decade. But the truth will open us up to scrutiny and maybe will allow us to avoid the mistakes of the past. Shuffling off Gitmo and every other policy and action that constituted a violation of human rights committed by the US government during the Bush administration into some untouchable place in the past will not address what we've done and how we begin to atone for, or at least to begin to heal, what our government has done.

In the specific case of the Horton article allegations, if it's found that the US government did not accidentally or otherwise kill three detainees at Camp America, then thank goodness. And if it turns out that there was something more sinister at work, then we can all possess that knowledge and learn for the future. If Horton's article is correct, there was a government cover-up conspiracy. Realistically, no one will be brought to justice, or punishment will only fall on the little fish and not higher up, where these human rights abuses were condoned, covered up, and even masterminded. But achieving awareness and truth is another matter. To have this happen, an independent truth commission should be established that studies this and other alleged human rights violations by the Bush administration (and perhaps the Obama administration, though I hope not) and records truthful testimony from victims and perpetrators, with amnesty granted for honesty. There are 188 detainees still being held at Gitmo and deprived of their rights as outlined under the Bill of Rights of the United States and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their stories should be shared openly with the world, as should the testimony of their captors. The truth, perhaps, is all that we can have. And maybe that's enough, or as good as we can do: to acknowledge the full extent of what the American government did, instead of continuing to redact it from the public's eyes.

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