After Guantanamo

Guantanamo Bay has become not only a symbol of the U.S. government's hypocrisy and dishonesty - or "disassembling," as President Bush might put it - around the war on terror. The prison camp has become one of the more egregious examples of the cost of unaccountable power.

Human rights groups have long documented the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo, including desecration of the Quran. (The International Committee of the Red Cross issued credible reports in 2002 and 2003 on mistreatment of the Islamic holy book, which last week even the Pentagon admitted.)

The 540 prisoners at the facility have been held incommunicado, denied access to legal counsel, and, in fact, denied the most basic aspects of legal process. The Bush administration has given mutually contradictory rationalizations for its treatment of prisoners there, claiming on the one hand that those incarcerated are effectively prisoners of war and in other circumstances that they are terrorist criminals. Yet the administration has refused to honor either the Geneva Conventions for treatment of POWs or the rights granted the accused under U.S. criminal law.

Defenders of Guantanamo and the policies it represents are quick to point out that our treatment of prisoners is far better than that meted out by the U.S.'s terrorist enemies - or the "gulag" of the former Soviet Union, for that matter. Fair enough. But if the U.S. is to continue to claim a place as a world leader for human rights, our standards must be infinitely higher and conform to or surpass international norms. We must not be satisfied with merely being "better" than al Qaeda or Stalin.

Former President Jimmy Carter has joined human rights groups, led by Amnesty International and others, in calling for the closing of Guantanamo Bay. "The U.S. continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation...because of reports concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo," Carter said, according to an A.P. report. President Bush refused to rule out the closing of the facility, saying the administration was "exploring all alternatives" for detaining the prisoners.

Guantanamo should be closed. But simply closing the facility - and either moving the detainees to another location or returning them to their country of origin - is not enough. If the United States is to regain any credibility as an advocate of human rights around the world, it must begin to practice what it preaches in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo, and everywhere else. The erosion of respect for human rights by U.S. personnel didn't begin at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, and the responsibility for it goes all the way to the top.


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