A Council of Tyrants

This morning, my suburban comfort was again disturbed by the intrusion of shocking images of prisoner abuse, but this time, not the newsworthy kind. The BBC, Reuters, the Washington Post, and Al-Jazeera have deemed this story unfit for your consumption. You may disagree if you wonder whether we dare leave even a part of a country in the hands of these people. If so, you’re on your own.

Moments after this picture was taken, this Iraqi soldier was murdered by the terrorists who had captured him. This was a real person. Somewhere, a real family grieves for him. Somewhere, his real murderers are plotting the murders of more people, people who are surrounded — for a few more priceless moments — by other people who love them. Eventually, their plans will include you and me.

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The news this week has had me thinking about a certain prison in Cuba. Here’s a report from one ex-inmate:

I had many friends in prison. One of them […] was just a kid. He went on a hunger strike to protest the abuses. The guards denied him water, Roberto lay on the floor of his punishment cell, agonizing, deliriously asking for water. water”¦ The soldiers came in and asked him: “Do you want water?””¦ The they took out their members and urinated in his mouth, on his face”¦ He died the following day. We were cellmates; when he died I felt something wither inside me.

I recall when they kept me in a punishment cell, naked, with several fractures on one leg which never received medical care; today, those bones remain jammed up together and displaced. One of the regular drills among the guards was to stand on the steel mesh ceiling and throw at my face buckets full of urine and excrement.

Mr. Chairman, I know the taste of the urine and the excrement of other men “¦ that practice does not leave marks; marks are left by beatings with steel rods and by bayonet thrusts. My head is still covered with scars and you can feel the cracks.

The prisoner’s name is Armando Valladares, and he survived twenty years of confinement at that horrid corner of Castro’s Cuba called the Isle of Pines. He was later released and allowed to leave the country, where he recovered his health, wrote a book, and was appointed to be an ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The Commision recently died from the shame of caused by having China, Syria, and Vietnam as members and Libya as Chair. Today, at least as best as can be known, thousands of dissidents still suffer at the Isle of Pines. I have no idea how many die each year, and I could find no evidence that the U.N. has even mentioned the place. Up until 2003, the Castro’s goons were still threatening to send independent journalists there for telling tales of the repression in their country.

The Commission’s replacement, the U.N. Human Rights Council, recently welcomed Cuba into its membership. Like each of the Council’s other members, Cuba was required to solemnly promise to “uphold the highest standards in the protection and promotion of human rights.” Here are a few of the Council’s other members:

China, with the world’s largest system of labor camps for political and religious dissents. The Commission apparently believes that China upholds the highest standards in the protection of human rights. The screaming irony here is that the United States had to delay the release of Chinese Gitmo prisoners for several months because of fears of how they’d be treated back in the Motherland. Freedom House says, “not free.”

– South Korea, which has used its seat in the U.N. to cover for those who keep the world’s most horrific concentration camps and perpetrate the worst atrocities on the face of the earth today. The Commission hasn’t yet gotten around to mentioning Yodok.

– Saudi Arabia. One of the outrages of the week over Gitmo was the fake Koran flushing story; the very possession of a Bible in Saudi Arabia risks a prison term, and there’s nothing ambiguous about the meaning of the word “torture” in a Saudi prison. Saudi Arabia’s system of religious apartheid is so bizarre that it must be seen to be believed. Another example of “the highest standards in the protection of human rights,” U.N. style. Another irony about Saudi Arabia is its reticence to accept its nationals the U.S. Army wants to release from Gitmo. Freedom House says, “not free.”

– Russia, also ranked “not free,” and which has hundreds of “disappeared” Chechens to answer for. They have detention camps for suspected rebels, don’t you know, but the Council hasn’t gotten around to mentioning those. Here’s a link to a report from Human Rights Watch on the hideous Chernokozovo detention center. This description by a former inmate was quoted in an Amnesty report:

“Musa” was severely beaten and tortured several times each day during his detention. On 18 January, he was forced to walk between a “human corridor” of 20-25 masked men armed with clubs and hammers, who beat him and the other detainees as they passed. “Musa” was hit on his back with a hammer which has left him with a fractured spine.

“Musa” witnessed a 14-year-old girl being raped by a dozen prison guards in the corridor outside the cells in which he and other detainees were held. The girl had come to visit her detained mother and for the price of 5,000 Rubles she was permitted a five-minute meeting. Her five-minute meeting became a four-day ordeal during which she was locked in a cell, beaten and repeatedly raped by guards.

“Musa” also told Amnesty International about a 16-year-old boy called Albert, originally from the village of Davydenko, who was brought to his cell after being gang-raped and severely beaten by prison guards. One of his ears had been cut off and the guards referred to him by the female name of “Maria”. “Musa” believes that up to 10 men were raped in the camp during his 21-day detention.

– Azerbaijan, another state infamous for a one-man heredity, dynastic tyranny. Not free.

– Malaysia, whose government jails political opponents on trumped-up charges … of being gay. Partly free.

Other “not free” nations that sit on the new and improved U.N. Human Rights Council: Algeria, Cameroon, Pakistan, and Tunisia. Members Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Ecuador, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Zambia were “partly free.”

I found no report by the Council or the Commission calling for the closure of the Isle of Pines or Yodok, or saying anything about conditions in either place. There is a pattern here, one we saw in the case of America-loathing Mary Robinson, who never uttered a peep on behalf of millions of starving refugees from North Korea as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The name of the institution itself suggests that pattern: “united by what?” One answer we’ve safely eliminated is a sincere concern about human rights. If in fact there are evil deeds being done at Gitmo, this bunch certainly won’t make a credible case of it.

Let me close this discussion with a question: does anyone recall the last time the United Nations ended a war, prevented a genocide, or called for the closure of a real gulag?

Update, 5/21

The latest word on Saudi Arabia, via Freedom House’s Nina Shea and the Washington Post, is
more evidence of Saudi mendacity when it claims to have purged its state-controlled textbooks of the propaganda of intolerance, hatred, and violence against non-believers.

Ironically, then, the UNHRC condemnation of Gitmo actually led me to look into the veracity of the claims on which it bases its conclusion, and the credibility and consistency of that body itself. I had originally wavered on the decision of the United States to spurn Council, but no longer. That body is so clearly lacking in consistency and credibility that it could raise completely legitimate issues and I’d pay little attention. While I’m troubled by the torturing of the definition of the word itself, I really can’t see what value Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, China, or Cuba can can add to the discussion. If prisoners at Gitmo were in fact beaten, that’s torture, and those who did it should be held accountable in the courts, as they were after Abu Ghraib. I make this caveat because I’ve seen, and could find, no direct credible evidence that does not rely on the accounts of suspected terrorists who are trained to fabricate such claims. If the worst of these claims are in fact true, they are still incomparably minute in both scale and severity to what goes on in the prisons of some of the Council’s member states. And if the standard is that that the abuse of one prisoner means that all must be released, I wonder what other nations would be subject to that stardard.

That is why calling for the closure of Gitmo is a patently diningenuous and stupid response. Close the place, and then what? Move them to another place? Release them? Have a look at just who we’re dealing with here:

Six prisoners were treated for “minor injuries” and none of the U.S. guards was seriously hurt after the fight pitting 10 inmates against 10 U.S. guards, the officials said. The fight ended only after guards blasted detainees five times with a 12 gauge shotgun shooting rubber balls and used a grenade launcher that shot a blunt rubber object, officials said.

While guards were putting down the fight, detainees in nearby cells began rioting, destroying cameras used to monitor them, fans, florescent lights and other property, officials said. …

The detainees had slickened the floor of their block with feces, urine and soapy water in an attempt to trip the guards. They then assaulted the guards with broken light fixtures, fan blades and bits of metal,” said Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, who commands the Guantanamo facility.

The clash took place in Camp Four, a medium-security facility with communal living arrangements, Harris said.

I wonder how other nations would deal with men like this. We know Germany’s model, the Hague’s, and on the other extreme, Saudi Arabia’s. I can’t for the life of me see what unites those nations other than all would do things quite differently than the United States. By failing to even recognize and apply a consistent set of international standards, the U.N. is setting back, rather than advancing, the important goal of elevating human rights standards internationally.

The one legitimate criticism I’ve seen raised is that we ought to be bringing these people to tribunals promptly (followed, where justified, by sentences to death by hanging).

This is also a trap into which the rest of us could fall, too. For all its obvious limitations, there’s a temptation for us to abandon the very idea of transnational standards of how governments should treat individuals. Letting Saudi Arabia and China be arbiters of those standards ought not to be cause to abandon that idea simply because the wrong people are insidiously setting the wrong standards. It would be a grave error to carry the extend criticism of a flawed Council to abandonment of the very idea of international human rights standards, which are worth defending, even if it means that Americans could lie at the end of the trial of evidence. Americans are just as inherently flawed as anyone. What makes us better than the U.N. is a set of standards imposed with the consent of the governed.

One comment

  1. A Council of Tyrants

    […] No comment thus far from the council of tyrants at the United Nations, which is too busy calling for the closure of Gitmo to call for the closure of Yodok and minimal compliance with its own refugee convention. Simply maddening. We will soon see which human rights organizations are worthy of their name. Hint: Human Rights Without Frontiers can make that claim. […]

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