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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 26, 2006

U.S. must not give up human-rights edge

After the devastation of Sept. 11, it could be argued that America's greatest weapon of retaliation was its moral authority.

While others stood for terrorism and anarchy, the United States stood for democracy and the rule of law. This was powerful armament as the nation fought these new and often hidden dangers.

That moral authority, sadly, is slowly eroding. Documented abuses at Abu Ghraib, alleged abuses at detention centers in Afghanistan and elsewhere, continued criticism of our facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and domestic civil-rights controversies have done little for our reputation both at home and abroad.

While authorities occasionally acknowledge missteps, the basic position has been that we are behaving properly and in the best interests of the American people and their security.

That argument is increasingly harder to sustain.

The latest blow comes from Amnesty International, a generally well-respected organization that the United States often cites when criticizing the human-rights violations of others.

In a report issued in London, the organization said the U.S. counterterrorism campaign is undermining human rights and draining energy from more focused efforts to help the poor and the suffering.

Specifically, Amnesty said:

  • Tighter rules should be imposed on the use of private contractors involved in anti-terror work in Iraq and elsewhere. These contractors operate beyond the pale of military authority and of domestic U.S. law, it said.

  • The Guantanamo Bay prison camp should be closed. Close to 500 people remain detained there in a legal limbo that denies them most access to civil or even military justice.

    To make matters worse, Amnesty said, actions by the United States are serving as a smokescreen for civil-rights and human-rights violators elsewhere. The "war on terror" becomes a cover for repression.

    The way forward is clear: Detention, interrogation and handling of detainees should be conducted strictly according to law or military procedure, whichever is most appropriate. Civilian contractors must be held to the same standards applied to the military or our court system.

    Guantanamo should be phased out. Those who are suspected of crimes should be given trials; those for whom no evidence exists should be repatriated to wherever they came from.

    That's the road toward regaining the moral authority we had, and can have once again.

    And it sends precisely the right message to our global neighbors, by making human rights a priority.