ntil recent years the United States has been in the forefront of condemning torture and indefinite detention without trial as fundamental violations of human rights. The Geneva Conventions are held as the unquestioned standard for the treatment of prisoners of war. I would not have believed that in my lifetime I would feel the need to call for an unambiguous prohibition against the practice of torture by agents of the U.S. government.
A burgeoning global human rights movement was, slowly but surely, taking root by the end of the twentieth century, as more and more nations sought to turn principles of human decency into the practice of greater justice for all. Tragically, the tolerance of torture by our own government is today threatening to undermine the cause of human rights and the work of those who defend these principles in the face of growing dangers.
Our nation, which overcame slavery and segregation to proudly raise the banner of human rights for all to see, now finds itself condemned amid the indelible images of human degradation, perpetrated by U.S. forces in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Our government’s persistent unwillingness to ban the use of torture by its own agents or to grant access to legal counsel or prospect of a proper trial to hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay emboldens those who oppose human rights elsewhere.
Many courageous human rights defenders who document and report human rights violations throughout the world say that these actions by the United States rob them of the tool that has been central to their success: the ability to name and shame human rights violations. Abusive governments now believe that the rules have changed, and they too easily make excuses that sound a lot like the U.S. government’s arguments to legitimize its own conduct.
As we commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United States must acknowledge that the world has become a battlefield where the rules of human rights no longer apply. We must urgently consider what this will mean for our own country and for our moral leadership in this world.