A Holy Qur?an is raised during a demonstration by 100 protestors outside the U.S. embassy in London, May 20, before attending prayers in the street outside the embassy because of the reported desecration of the Holy Qur?an in Guantanamo Bay prison camp, in Cuba. AFP
LONDON (IPS/GIN) - The U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is the “Gulag of our time,” Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan said at the launch of the human rights group’s annual report May 25.
Ms. Khan picked strongly on human rights abuses by Western nations at the launch of the report. The strongest criticism from Amnesty usually focuses more often on desperate situations in the developing world.
The Gulag was the Soviet agency that administered a chain of forced labor camps for political and other prisoners, mostly in Siberia. Ms. Khan saw a parallel with Guantanamo, where hundreds of terror suspects continue to be held without charge or trial.
The report says also that thousands of people were detained during U.S. military and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and routinely denied access to their families and lawyers. The report attacks the United States for evidence that the U.S. administration had sanctioned interrogation techniques that violate the UN convention against torture.
The George Bush administration’s attempts to dilute the absolute ban on torture through new policies and quasi-management-speak such as “environmental manipulation,” “stress positions” and “sensory manipulation,” is one of the most damaging assaults on global values, the report says.
Despite the U.S. administration’s repeated use of the language of justice and freedom, “there was a huge gap between rhetoric and reality,” the report says. “This was starkly illustrated by the failure to conduct a full and independent investigation into the appalling torture and ill-treatment of detainees by U.S. soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the failure to hold senior individuals to account.”
Ms. Khan said: “The U.S.A., as the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behavior worldwide. When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity.”
Many governments are “betraying their promise of a world order based on human rights and are pursuing a dangerous new agenda,” the report said. Khan said in a statement at the launch that “a new agenda is in the making with the language of freedom and justice being used to pursue policies of fear and insecurity. This includes cynical attempts to redefine and sanitize torture.”
But while Amnesty made some of its strongest criticism yet of the United States, the report points to Sudan as the country that has hosted the worst human rights abuses. Ms. Khan blamed the Sudanese government, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity for failing to do enough to protect rights there. In Darfur, the Amnesty report says the Sudanese government “generated a human rights catastrophe and the international community did too little too late to address the crisis, betraying hundreds of thousands of people.”
In Haiti, individuals responsible for serious human rights violations were allowed to regain positions of power, the report says. “In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, there was no effective response to the systematic rape of tens of thousands of women, children and even babies. Despite the holding of elections, Afghanistan slipped into a downward spiral of lawlessness and instability. Violence was endemic in Iraq.”
At a national level, governments betrayed human rights at terrible costs to ordinary people. “Russian soldiers reportedly tortured, raped and sexually abused Chechen women with impunity,” the report says. “Zimbabwe’s government manipulated food shortages for political reasons.”
The betrayal of human rights by governments was accompanied by increasingly horrific acts of terrorism as armed groups stooped to new levels of brutality,” the report says.
“The televised beheading of captives in Iraq, the taking of over a thousand people hostage, including hundreds of children in a school in Beslan, and the massacre of hundreds of commuters in Madrid shocked the world. Yet, governments are failing to confront their lack of success in addressing terrorism, persisting with failed, but politically convenient, strategies. Four years after 9/11, the promise to make the world a safer place remains hollow,” she said.
Many governments showed a shocking contempt for the rule of law, the report says. “Nigeria granted Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, refugee status despite his indictment for killings, mutilations and rape. Israel’s construction of a barrier inside the occupied West Bank ignored the International Court of Justice opinion, that this violated international human rights and humanitarian law. Arbitrary detentions and unfair trials took place under security legislation in a number of countries.”
But there were also signs of hope in 2004, said Ms. Khan. A progressive family law was introduced in Morocco, and there was promising new legislation in Turkey, she said. In India, the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act was repealed, she said.
Legal challenges to the new agenda included U.S. Supreme Court judgments on Guantanamo detainees and the ruling by the British law lords on indefinite detention without charge or trial of “terrorist suspects.” Public pressure included the turnout of millions of people in Spain protesting against the Madrid bombings, uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine and the growing debate on political change in the Middle East.
“Increasingly, the duplicity of governments and the brutality of armed groups are being challenged—by judicial decisions, popular resistance, public pressure and UN reform initiatives,” Ms. Khan said. “The challenge for the human rights movement is to harness the power of civil society and push governments to deliver on their human rights promises.”
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