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Amnesty Irresponsible

Posted by Richard on June 1, 2005

I was a member of Amnesty International USA for at least 20 years. As a libertarian, I gladly supported an organization that fought human rights abuses worldwide and helped free political prisoners. I never shared the group’s enthusiasm for the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (read it; it’s far more a declaration of government rights than human rights). But I thought their hearts were in the right place, and all those letters and dollars and press releases actually seemed pretty effective.

A few years ago, however, I let my membership expire. I grew tired of the growing anti-US slant, and the moral equivalence crap that allowed them to rail against relatively minor and arguable "human rights abuses" (like the death penalty) in the US as if they were as bad as the imprisonment, torture, and repression taking place on a daily basis in various "workers’ paradises." 

But now, Amnesty International has become so anti-American that even the Washington Post (log in with BugMeNot) can’t stomach it:

…True, Amnesty continues to keep track of the world’s political prisoners, as it has always done, and its reports remain a vital source of human rights information. But lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world’s dictators but for the United States.

That vitriol reached a new level this week when, at a news conference held to mark the publication of Amnesty’s annual report, the organization’s secretary general, Irene Khan, called the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the "gulag of our times." …

And that wasn’t the only bit of over-the-top America-bashing, according to David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey at NRO:

In addition, the executive director of Amnesty International USA has called on foreign governments to seize and prosecute American officials traveling abroad, just as a Spanish judge attempted to prosecute former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

Rivkin and Casey say Amnesty’s 2005 report on human rights is fundamentally biased against the US:

This is obvious from the report’s three fundamental measures of a good human-rights record, which are applied to every included state: (1) whether the death penalty has been retained; (2) whether the International Criminal Court treaty has been ratified; and (3) whether the U.N. Women’s Convention, and its Optional Protocol, has been ratified. All of these criteria involve controversial political issues where there is fundamental disagreement between right and left and — from Amnesty’s perspective — George Bush’s America fails on all counts.

And, of course, those are so much more pressing issues than whether journalists and dissidents are imprisoned and tortured for years, whether women are stoned to death for allowing themselves to be raped, or whether hands and heads are chopped off for minor criminal offenses or apostasy.

But the real meat of the Rivkin and Casey article is their discussion of the war we’re in, the left’s rejection of it as a state of war, and the status of those who wage it against us. They begin by noting that the Amnesty report applies a "criminal-law model," speaking of the Guantanamo detainees as "held without charge or trial…" Nonsense, they say, and make an important point — at least, it ought to be important to a human rights group (emphasis added):

Of course, the men held at Guantanamo Bay are not political dissidents. They are captured enemy combatants. Under the laws of war, they can be detained until the conflict, or at least actual hostilities, are concluded. This has been the practice of the United States, and of every other major power in Europe and elsewhere, for centuries. It is not illegal; it is not immoral. In fact, this rule is one of the first and most important humanitarian advances made in warfare. The right to detain is the necessary concomitant of the obligation to give quarter on the battlefield, to actually take prisoners alive.

I recall reading (but don’t recall where) that, after the US tightened up rules for handling prisoners in Afghanistan in order to protect their rights, lo and behold, fewer enemy combatants were taken prisoner and more died fighting. One should always beware the unintended consequences of one’s policies.

Rivkin and Casey argue that we are indeed at war, and legitimately so, citing a very early historical precedent with which I’m not familiar:

The American military was deployed against al Qaeda, and its Taliban allies, in accordance with a specific congressional authorization (dated September 18, 2001) for the use of force. As the Supreme Court recognized as early as the 1798-1801 “undeclared” or “quasi” naval war with France, the United States can be at war without a formal declaration. In addition, as the Court also ruled — in cases dealing with Indian tribes — the United States can be at war with a non-state. Both of these rules are fully consistent with the requirements of international law. States can be engaged in an “armed conflict” with non-state actors.

[On a personal note, when I read this, I immediately thought of the late David Segal and missed him. If he were alive, I’m certain I could have called him to ask about the undeclared war with France, and he would have expounded in fascinating and entertaining detail for a good 20 or 30 minutes on the topic. We miss you, David.]

Given this unconventional armed conflict, Rivkin and Casey argue that the US has mostly handled prisoners quite properly:

There have been instances of prisoner abuse, at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. The armed forces are a human institution and, like any such institution, there are flaws. That is why we have an elaborate and highly responsive military-justice system. Investigations are ongoing, prosecutions have been brought, and some individuals have already been punished. In fact, the record of human-rights compliance so far compiled by the United States Armed Forces in the war on terror has been exemplary. Tens of thousands of individuals have been captured and processed by American forces. There have been a few hundred allegations of abuse, and only a few dozen documented cases.

After challenging Amnesty’s allegation of torture, Rivkin and Casey make a point that might be directed right at libertarians:

Amnesty is trapped in a 20th-century mindset where the greatest threat to individual life and liberty stemmed from the actions of sovereign governments. That is simply no longer the case. Although the world remains full of repressive regimes, the most immediate threat to the civilian population in the United States and other democracies comes from pan-national terrorist movements who deliberately target non-combatants as a means of achieving their ends.

I know that, as a libertarian, I reflexively think "government = threat to liberty." And, of course, it’s true.

But, after 9/11, I realized that there are other threats, too, and they can be bigger, graver, or more immediate. We need more than reflexive thoughts these days. We need reflection and consideration of context and consequences.

(HT: PowerLine)

UPDATE: Check out Austin Bay’s June 1 post on this subject:

… An organization with genuine moral principles and genuine respect for human rights must be able to distinguish between scattered crime and focused genocide, between criminal actions at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo (on the one hand) and 9/11, the Taliban, Bali, Saddam, suicide bombers (etc) on the other. Koran flushing? Does anyone remember the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddas of Bubiyan? Does Amnesty? Amnesty has cheapened the language of suffering, and for an organization espousing Amnesty’s principles, this is a grievous error.

Read the whole thing.

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