USA: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Human Rights

September 16, 2013

USA: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Human Rights

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"The Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commitnumerous, serious abuses. The security forces committed many unlawful killings, and they were accused of the disappearances of numerous persons... Security forces frequently tortured, beat, and otherwise abused or humiliated citizens. The Government investigated some of the alleged abuses by the security forces; however, abusers rarely were charged or disciplined... Security forces continued to use arbitrary arrest and detention, and lengthy pretrial detention remained common... Political prisoners held from previous years were released; however, numerous persons during the state of emergency were denied habeas corpus and held indefinitely as ‘illegal combatants'..."

When it published this critique of Liberia's human rights record in 2003, the USA was itself using torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention against detainees it called "enemy combatants" in what it then called the "war on terror". It was denying habeas corpus to hundreds of detainees held at its naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and elsewhere and building impunity into its detention and interrogation programs. It had already conducted a "targeted killing" operation by drone in Yemen in what a UN expert concluded had resulted in extrajudicial executions. The double standards continue – for example, the State Department's human rights reports criticize impunity for human rights violations in other countries, even as the USA itelf fails to ensure accountability.

In July 2007, a year after the Human Rights Committee's conclusions on the USA's Second and Third Periodic Reports, including condemnation of secret detention and "enhanced" interrogation, the US Department of Justice gave the CIA a classified memorandum, one in a long line of documents relating to the secret detention programme disclosed in recent years. The Department of State, it wrote, had "informed us" that its human rights assessments "are not meant to be legal conclusions, but instead they are public diplomatic statements designed to encourage foreign governments to alter their policies in a manner that would serve United States interests." US public condemnation of torture and of the "coercion of confessions in ordinary criminal cases", it said, "is not inconsistent with the CIA's proposed interrogation practices". The CIA programme, it continued "is designed to subject detainees to no more duress than is justified by the Government's paramount interest in protecting the United States and its interests from further terrorist attacks." As such, the CIA's conduct "fundamentally differs from the conduct condemned in the State Department reports". The memo gave legal approval for forms of physical assault and prolonged sleep deprivation against detainees already being subjected to enforced disappearance.

A reluctance to acknowledge the equal application of international human rights standards to the USA has been described as a form of "American exceptionalism". Such exceptionalism may be based in part on an assumption that universal human rights principles are somehow inferior to the constitutional and other laws and values of the USA. The grave dangers of reliance on any such assumption has been starkly demonstrated in recent years when the invocation of "American values" as a sole point of reference by public officials became a familiar refrain even as the USA adopted counter-terrorism detention policies that clearly contradicted basic rules of international human rights and humanitarian law.