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February 20, 2009

Calls Mount for Obama to Appoint 'Truth Commission'

by Jim Lobe

Eighteen U.S. human rights groups Thursday joined a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a retired top diplomat in calling on President Barack Obama to appoint a nonpartisan commission of leading citizens to examine and report on the treatment of detainees held by the United States during President George W. Bush's "global war on terror."

In a joint statement, the groups, which included Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights First (HRF), said members of such a commission "should be persons of irreproachable integrity, credibility, and independence" with "reputation for putting the truth and the respect for our nation's founding principles ahead of any partisan advantage."

Such a commission should also report on the consequences of alleged abuses committed by U.S. officials against detainees and "make recommendations for future policy in this area," according to the statement, which was also signed by ret. Maj. General Antonio Taguba, the senior military officer whose 2004 report and subsequent Congressional testimony on abuses committed by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq drew headlines and outrage around the world.

The statement comes amid a growing public clamor, particularly from Obama's Democratic base, for some forum that will determine responsibility for some of the more notorious abuses sanctioned or committed by U.S. official personnel during Bush's war on terror and help inform the detention and interrogation policies of the new administration.

"The abuses carried out over the past eight years have not only undermined America's moral authority, but also jeopardized its national security," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counter-terrorism counsel at HRW. "We need to understand exactly what happened in order to protect our fundamental freedoms and keep the country safe."

To date, Obama and his top officials, including his attorney general, Eric Holder, have been ambiguous about their views on the question. Obama has said he believes that "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."

Democratic lawmakers, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, have made a number of suggestions, including creating a "truth commission" that could summon witnesses, including high-ranking Bush administration officials who authorized interrogation techniques that rights groups consider to be torture, and make recommendations, but could not bring criminal charges.

The plan appears, at least in theory, to enjoy substantial public support. A Gallup poll conducted late last month found that nearly two-thirds of respondents favored some form of investigation into alleged administration abuses, including the torture of detainees. While a quarter of respondents said they favored investigations without criminal charges, almost 40 percent indicated support for criminal prosecutions if the investigations found evidence that laws had been violated.

"There's a growing sense both in Washington and the country at large that people don't want these abuses swept under the carpet," said Tom Parker, policy director for terrorism, counter-terrorism and human rights for Amnesty International USA, one of the statement's signatories. "They want to know what's been done in their name; and, if they don't approve of what was done in their name, they want to see people held accountable."

Republicans, however, appear united in strongly opposing the creation of any independent forum, least of all one that could result in criminal prosecutions.

They have argued that Congress has already held a number of hearings on detainee abuse and that appointing an independent commission would amount to a "political vendetta" that would not only make bipartisanship more difficult but could also set a damaging precedent.

"If every administration started to reexamine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it," warned Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who had himself frequently complained about the Bush administration's denial of habeas corpus and authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for detainees, last month. "This is not Latin America," he added.

But rights groups have long claimed that Congress's hearings that have looked into the alleged abuses have been far too limited in their scope and have provided only a partial picture of how specific policies authorizing the alleged abuses were derived and implemented. Moreover, the hearings were mostly conducted in a highly politicized context.

The signatories of the new statement stressed that the president should solicit recommendations from both parties' Congressional leaders before choosing members of the commission.

Among the kinds of members who should be considered, according to the statement, are "leading academics, retired judges and government officials, retired military officers and intelligence officials, and human rights experts."

"We need people of the stature of John McCain or John Kerry who have knowledge of military service, people with a great deal of experience with the intelligence community," said Parker. "It isn't just about morality; it's about the right policy, whether these kinds of methods worked. We don't think they do," he added.

In addition to Taguba, who last year accused the Bush administration of having committed war crimes in its treatment of detainees, individual signatories of the statement included ret. U.S. Amb. Thomas Pickering, who served as Washington's envoy to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush and is among the highest-ranking and most-decorated diplomats of his generation; and Judge Williams Sessions, who served as FBI director under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Also signing was Juan Mendez, president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice and former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Mendez, an Argentine native who gained asylum in the United States, has advised truth commissions that were established in Latin America and elsewhere around the world to investigate abuses committed by military and other authoritarian governments.

In addition to HRW, HRF, and AIUSA, other institutional signatories included the National Institute of Military Justice, the Center for Victims of Torture, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Open Society Institute, and Physicians for Human Rights, among others.

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) also called this week for the Obama administration to conduct an investigation into abuses against terrorism suspects.

"Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and repeal abusive laws and policies enacted in recent years," former Irish President Mary Robinson told reporters. "Human rights and international humanitarian law provide a strong and flexible framework to address terrorist threats."

Robinson was one of several members of an ICJ panel that looked into abuses committed during the war on terror. The panel also included Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain's MI5.

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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