In what appears to be a concerted effort to discredit
independent human rights advocates, the Bush administration and its allies in
the media have been engaging in a series of attacks against Amnesty
International, the world's largest human rights organization and winner of
the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize.
Amnesty International has received support from literally millions of individuals
around the world because of its steadfast defense of civil and political rights
against repressive governments regardless of a given regime's ideology,
economic system, or strategic alliances. Avoiding politics, Amnesty provides
regular reports of the human rights situation in every country in the world
based upon certain objective criteria, and focuses its advocacy work on letter-writing
campaigns to free individual prisoners.
Such consistent and credible reporting and advocacy to advance the cause of
human rights does not sit well with the U.S. government, however, long the world's
number one military and financial backer of autocratic regimes and whose armed
forces in recent years have engaged in widespread torture, extrajudicial killings,
and other violations of international humanitarian law.
Following publication of a report
on May 26 criticizing the abuse of prisoners by the U.S. military in detention
facilities in Iraq and elsewhere, Vice President Dick Cheney blithely dismissed
Amnesty International's well-documented findings, saying "I frankly just
don't take them seriously." White House spokesman Scott McClellan claimed
that the detailed accounting of U.S. human rights violations was "ridiculous
and unsupported by the facts," while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
declared that Amnesty's report was "absurd."
President George W. Bush, in a press conference May 31, similarly referred
to it as "an absurd
report" and implied that the 44-year-old human rights organization
was being used by terrorists and those "who hate America."
Ironically, at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, top Bush administration
officials were regularly citing Amnesty International's human rights reports
as evidence of the perfidy of Saddam Hussein's regime. For example, in reference
to the Iraqi government, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted that
"We know that it's a repressive regime" as a result of reports by
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations "about how the
regime of Saddam Hussein treats his people." Rumsfeld added that a "careful
reading" of Amnesty International's reports documents "the viciousness
of that regime."
It is one thing to criticize human rights abuses by foreign governments the
Bush administration seeks to overthrow, and it is quite another thing to criticize
human rights abuses by the United States itself.
A number of prominent American publications, such as the Wall Street Journal,
have joined in the attack, calling Amnesty International a "highly politicized
pressure group" whose allegations regarding human rights abuses by U.S.
forces "amount to pro-al-Qaeda propaganda."
Amnesty International and Double Standards
This is not the first time the U.S. government
has tried to discredit Amnesty International, however.
For example, in 1982, Amnesty International reported how the Guatemalan army
under dictator Efrain Rios Montt was engaged the slaughter of thousands of Indian
villagers in what Amnesty described as a "genocidal policy." In response,
the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City insisted that Amnesty International had been
duped by Communists. In Washington, President Ronald Reagan insisted that Rios
Montt, who had seized power in a military coup a few months earlier, was "totally
dedicated to democracy" and that the general had been given "a bum
rap." U.S. government documents subsequently released reveal that the CIA
and other U.S. agencies were actually confirming the reports of widespread massacres
by the Guatemala armed forces.
During that same period, Amnesty International reported that in neighboring
El Salvador, the junta's armed forces and special security units were engaged
in the torture, disappearance, and murder of thousands of civilians, the majority
of whom were nonviolent activists affiliated with peasant leagues, labor unions,
religious organizations, human rights groups, and opposition political parties.
However, Reagan administration officials denied such human rights abuses were
taking place, and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders attacked Amnesty
International for being one-sided and acting as apologists for "terrorists."
Subsequent investigations by the United Nations' Truth Commission have confirmed
the accuracy of Amnesty's findings.
Also during the 1980s, the validity of Amnesty International's reports regarding
the widespread killings of Nicaraguan civilians by irregular forces based in
Honduras and of Honduran civilians by security forces of their own government
were repeatedly challenged by then-U.S. ambassador John Negroponte. Yet again,
the U.S. government's cover-ups were ultimately unsuccessful and Amnesty's reports
have since been acknowledged as accurate. Negroponte has since served as President
Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, followed by a stint as the "ambassador"
to Iraq (while still under U.S. occupation), and currently as the first director
of national intelligence.
Despite Amnesty International's frank reporting of human rights abuses in Nicaragua,
Cuba, and other leftist governments, media outlets supportive of U.S. Central
America policy rushed to the Reagan administration's defense, with the Wall
Street Journal falsely accusing Amnesty of applying "a gentler standard
to U.S. adversaries in Central America than to U.S. friends" and using
"ad hominem attacks" on "those offering conflicting evidence."
A key figure in the Reagan administration's efforts to discredit Amnesty International's
reporting on Central America was Elliot Abrams, who succeeded Enders as assistant
secretary of state for Latin America. Despite Abrams being convicted of perjury
in 1991 for lying to Congress under oath, President Bush during his first term
appointed him special assistant to the president and senior director on the
National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs. Abrams currently
serves as his deputy national security adviser – ironically in charge of
promoting democracy abroad.
Efforts to discredit Amnesty International when it challenged the human rights
abuses of U.S. allies continued into the 1990s as well. In 1996, Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton dismissed Amnesty International's
reports regarding the Israeli massacre of over 100 Lebanese refugees at a United
Nations compound near Lebanese village of Qana, insisting – despite the
failure to present any evidence to the contrary – that the killings were
In 1999, during a visit to Turkey not long after Amnesty International released
a report documenting ongoing human rights abuses by the Turkish government,
including the use of torture on an administrative basis, President Clinton praised
what he described as a "renewed and clear determination of the Turkish
government to take a stand against torture and to generally increase protection
of human rights." Despite the report noting structural impediments to any
imminent lessening of ongoing abuses, the visiting American president declared
"the human rights issue is moving in the right direction in this nation."
Under the Bush administration, congressional Democrats have supported Republican
efforts to discredit Amnesty International when it criticizes American allies.
For example, in April of 2002, Amnesty International published a detailed and
well-documented report regarding the Israeli military offensive in the occupied
West Bank, noting how "the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] acted as though
the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which
had no clear or obvious military necessity." The report went on to document
unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property, arbitrary detention, torture,
assaults on medical personnel and journalists, as well as random shooting at
people and houses. In response, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the
House of Representatives challenged Amnesty's findings, claiming that "Israel's
military operations are an effort to defend itself … and are aimed only
at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas."
Though the chief sponsor was right-wing Republican leader Tom DeLay, the resolution
was supported by such prominent congressional Democrats as Tom Lantos, Nancy
Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Mark Udall, John Lewis, Lane Evans, Barney Frank, Edward
Markey, Major Owens, David Price, Steny Hoyer, Dick Gephardt, Jim McGovern,
and Patrick Kennedy, among others. Indeed, there were only 21 dissenting votes
against the resolution in the 435-member body.
With the Democrats demonstrating their willingness to team up with Republicans
to try to discredit Amnesty International when it criticizes human rights abuses
by the armed forces of key U.S. allies, it is not surprising that the Bush administration
and its supporters now feel that they can get away with such brazen attacks
against the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization when it criticizes U.S. forces.
Yet the influence that Amnesty International has been able to wield over the
years in advancing the cause of human rights has never come from the backing
of governments or political parties, but from the support of concerned individuals
from around the world. It is therefore up to the American people to challenge
any and all elected officials who seek to discredit this noble organization
in order to cover up human rights abuses by the United States and its allies.