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May 8, 2004

Iraq Scandal Opens US to Charges of Double Standards

by Thalif Deen

According to a joke circulating in Washington political circles, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's notorious torture chamber in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad – once held up as a symbol of barbarity – was never shut down.

A signboard outside the prison chamber now reads: "Under New Management." US management, that is.

The extent of the US administration's embarrassment following the publication of photos showing torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib is evident in the fact that Washington has postponed the release of the State Department's annual report on human rights abuses worldwide.

The official reasons for the eleventh hour postponement have not been disclosed.

The report usually takes aim at virtually every country, most in the developing world, for human rights excesses while excluding US abuses from its pages.

The question now being asked is: can Washington afford to take a holier-than-thou attitude when it beats up the rest of the world every year in the annual report?

Even the 'New York Times' admitted in its editorial Friday that "the United States has been humiliated to a point where government officials could not release this year's international human rights report this week for fear of being scoffed at by the rest of the world."

"Internationally, there is little US credibility on human rights issues," says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington.

She attributes the lack of US credibility to two primary factors: "the blatantly political motives of human rights criticisms (largely ignoring abuses in US "client states" like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and especially protecting Israel from the consequences of its human rights violations), and because of US denials in the past of its own human rights abuses."

The harrowing images of US soldiers brutalizing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners – aired worldwide starting last week – have triggered outrage not only in the Middle East but throughout the world.

The photographs and television images include those of young Iraqis stripped naked and forced to pile up in a pyramid formation, while US soldiers grin at the hideous spectacle.

According to published reports, Iraqi detainees were also beaten up, tortured, threatened with rape and victimized by ferocious guard dogs. Dead bodies are now being exhumed in Iraq to ascertain the cause of death at the hands of soldiers or interrogators from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The United States, which actively participates in an annual ritual of "bashing" countries like Iran, Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Sudan and Myanmar at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva and at the General Assembly sessions in New York, has lost its moral authority to point an accusing finger at miscreants when it has problems in its own backyard, say diplomats from developing nations.

Although the commission holds its major session only once a year, the U.N.'s Third Committee and the General Assembly also take up the question of human rights violations in individual countries every year, from September through December.

Since usually no western nations are singled out for attack, these year-end UN resolutions have been described as exercises in "Third-World bashing."

But the release of the torture photographs, Bennis told IPS, "may have the effect of evening the score a bit if, for example, the UN Human Rights Commission decides to launch an investigation of its own."

At its annual sessions last month, the commission abandoned a proposal to probe abuses in Iraq, primarily because of US pressure. Still, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva is expected to present a report on Iraq to the commission May 31.

Acting High Commissioner Bertrand Ramacharan, who expressed disappointment over the commission's inability to adopt a resolution on Iraq last month, has already written to Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq, members of the Iraqi Governing Council and foreign ministers of countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition forces in the occupied nation, asking them to provide information relevant to the inquiry.

Ramacharan and his team have also expressed their willingness to go to Iraq to probe abuses. But it is very likely Washington will reject this request.

Speaking to UN reporters last week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the photos had "stunned every American. It showed acts that are despicable," he added.

President George W Bush, who publicly apologized for the growing scandal, went on Arabic television networks this week to say he was "appalled" by the abuses.

Bush was momentarily taken aback when an Arab interviewer told him many Arabs believe his administration is no better than the government of former President Saddam Hussein.

"(Human rights) violations by the United States, such as the torture scandal in Iraq, have global repercussions," says Roger Normand, executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Normand, who is currently working on a book on the United Nations and human rights, told IPS, "not only is the United States totally unaccountable for its actions, but also its disregard for human rights in the so-called war against terror encourages other states to violate human rights."

Moreover, he added, Washington goes so far as to deny the very application of international law to its own actions and consistently covers up abuses by allies like Israel. "This policy of double standards and US exceptionalism poses a threat to the very existence of the human rights framework," he added.

Even as the United States was coming under heavy fire for human rights abuses in Iraq, US Ambassador Sichan Siv blasted the African Group for nominating Sudan for reelection to the human rights commission – particularly when the country is accused of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Responding to the US criticism, Sudanese Ambassador Omar Bashir Mohamed Manis launched an attack on the United States, accusing Washington of political hypocrisy for preaching human rights to the outside world while there are abuses in its own backyard.

"It is yet very ironic that the US delegation, while shedding crocodile tears over the situation in Darfur, is turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by American forces against the innocent civilian population in Iraq," he said.

Normand said the rights commission is composed of 53 member states, most of which violate human rights to some degree. "The government of Sudan is among the worst, and its record should be strongly condemned," he added. "But US violations have global repercussions."

Bennis said US credibility will also continue to suffer from the Bush administration's "unsigning" of the international criminal court (ICC) treaty.

"If the US were a signatory, the ICC would have clear jurisdiction (to probe US atrocities in Iraq) in case the internal US investigation proved insufficient," she added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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