An American Gulag? Human rights groups test the limits of moral equivalency (my Weekly Standard article - comments welcome here)
(Update, Monday, June 6, 2005: Irene Kahn, AI SG, uses the word 'gulag' once in her introduction to the AI report, and I should probably have noted it in my article. My claim, however, is that her use of the term 'gulag' in the press release - in its original Soviet meaning - is altogether different from the mention of that word in the introduction, that its use in the press release nowhere appears in the report, and that neither usage is defended or argued for anywhere in the report.
(The introduction mentions gulag in a generic way - although nowhere in the rest of the report is even that generic charge taken up, defended, or given evidence. Many have argued against AI that there is no merely "generic" sense of gulag - if you use it, you mean a system of prison camps with mass numbers, millions of prisoners in horrible conditions, with mass numbers dying - all the features of the gulag described in such horrific detail by Anne Applebaum and others. I incline to admit a certain generic meaning nowadays for the term gulag- even if it is a sad corruption of the language - to denote any system of prison camps in which are held arguably political prisoners. That said, I don't think that even AI's generic use in the introduction is defensible because Guantanamo is not a camp for political prisoners - and that is so even if there are some innocent people trapped there. And if Amnesty thinks it is a camp for political prisoners - 'gulag' in a generic sense - it is obliged to defend that characterization with evidence somewhere in the report. It does not; the term nowhere appears again after that single, inflammatory reference in the introduction.
The Amnesty press release, however, uses the term 'gulag' in a quite different and much stronger sense. Khan does not simply use the term gulag; she then goes on specifically to invoke the Soviet gulag, the original gulag. By so doing, she raises the bar for what must be shown to substantiate that charge to the level of the actual Soviet gulag. The charge of a specifically Soviet-style gulag, a gulag in the historical sense, is made only in the press release, and not in the report, not in the introduction and nowhere else in the report. As used in the press release, the term gulag raises a wholly different charge on an entirely different scale against the United States from its use even in the introduction. This stronger use of the term in the press release is nowhere discussed or defended with evidence in the report. (Nor, I emphasize, is even the generic use of 'gulag' further discussed or defended after being used once in the introduction).
(Since Khan, in the press release but not in the report, chose to invoke the Soviet gulag - the real gulag, the original gulag, all the criticisms that Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post, EJ Dionne, and others have made as to why it is not comparable to the Soviet system and an outrage to suggest that it does come into play. I agree, up to a certain point, with the anonymous comment below that it doesn't so much matter what you call a thing as what it is - except, however, that to say 'what it is' requires terms to describe it. If those terms are both wrong and inflammatory, that's a serious problem. In the case of generic use of gulag, it is, in my estimation, wrong. In the case of what the press release said, the Soviet Union's gulag, it is so gross a distortion as to deliberately falsify what you say you are describing. Words matter, and it is wrong and false to pass it all off as mere semantics, as Irene Kahn's letter to the Washington Post did, as HRW counsel Reed Brody echoed in his comments to the NYT defending AI, and as the NYT editorial page did.
(It is an additional sign of moral unseriousness, moreover - of dangerous rhetorical inflation - to have no discussion of what the press release says or the inflammatory term used in the introduction in the actual country discussion section of the report, the place in the report where evidence of actual country practices during the last year is presented and reviewed - there is no discussion of gulags or any of the other charges that I raise in the press release in the USA country section, the place where one would expect AI to present evidence to defend its characterizations.
(In any case, the much more serious charge, the one more or less unnoticed by the press, is the charge found solely in the press release that the United States has resurrected the actual "practice" of Latin American-style "disappearances." I should have emphasized this more strongly in the Weekly Standard piece. No one could seriously dispute that "disappearances" is a term referring to the kidnapping and extrajudicial execution of persons, typically on political grounds. If you use the term Latin American "disappearances," you mean murders. That charge appears only in the press release and not in the report, and is not mentioned in either the introduction or the USA country section. I cannot fathom how an organization can responsibly and in good conscience make accusations that amount to organized murder in a mere statement to the press and then nowhere take them up again - nor can I fathom how an attentive press can fail to make enquiries about it. This, far more than the gulag controversy, seems to me Amnesty's most astonishing unsubstantiated charge.)
The Weekly Standard has published on its website my article on Amnesty International's world report and its press conferences featuring claims of an American gulag. It will come out in the print edition of June 13, 2005. Read it here. This is also the place to post any comments you might have about the article. Excerpts:
"With the release of its 2005 human rights report, Amnesty International got all the headlines that even an organization that lives for press attention could possibly hope to get. It did so by lobbing rhetorical hand grenades--each delivered in press statements but, revealingly and characteristically, not found in the text of the report itself. A strategy, that is, of maximum press exposure today for charges that do not actually figure in the document that will constitute AI's historical archive tomorrow. "Who controls the past controls"--well, no doubt Amnesty's Inner Party knows that particular aphorism and its provenance.
"First came AI secretary general Irene Khan's press statement releasing the report in London, which announced that the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo "has become the gulag of our times." That she meant the word gulag in its original sense--Stalin's camps in the Soviet Union through which millions upon millions of political prisoners passed and where many died--is underlined by the reference in her next sentence to Guantanamo evoking "images of Soviet repression." When the Washington Post editorial page, among many others, refused to countenance a comparison of such profound incomparables, she responded in a letter accusing it, astonishingly, of quibbling over semantics.
"The "gulag" characterization was accompanied, however, by another allegation, nearly unnoticed in the press, yet if anything more outrageous in its implications. So-called "ghost detentions" by the United States, Khan said, do not merely evoke "images of" Stalin's camps. They actually "bring back" the "practice of 'disappearances' so popular with Latin American dictators in the past." Amnesty thus accuses the United States government of "disappearing"--kidnapping and secretly murdering--people. On what evidence? Well, none in Amnesty's actual report--but, in the press conference, it was said to be on the basis of not reporting all detainees, even ones who are not (in a perfectly defensible even if, to Amnesty, disagreeable reading of the Geneva Conventions) actual POWs who must be reported to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"Then there was the remarkable call by William Schulz, Amnesty International's USA executive director, in his own press conference, for foreign governments to investigate and arrest U.S. officials, should they venture abroad, for their alleged complicity in torture. Apparently very serious stuff--the media certainly thought so. "Torture," however, in AI's expansive view includes even the mere holding of a detainee "incommunicado." Moreover, since AI apparently regards all the detainees as entitled to full POW protections under the Third Geneva Convention, any departure from mere "name, rank, and serial number" questions is, for it, grounds for foreign governments to arrest U.S. officials and military officers for war crimes. Suffice it to say that the United States does not agree that all detainees are entitled to Geneva protections, and to the extent that something as flimsy as this is the basis for Amnesty's call for foreign governments to make arrests of U.S. officials, those foreign governments might want to be very, very careful."
"So. Stalin's gulag, updated for our times. "Disappearances"--a term meaning, of course, the secret murder of detainees. And calls for the arrest by foreign governments of a long, long list of senior U.S. officials as "high level architects of torture"--oh, sorry, merely "apparent" architects of torture, but worthy of arrest by foreign governments just the same. Strong words for a press conference--and yet charges nowhere appearing in the actual report. Did reporters notice? Did any of them think to ask Amnesty International why it thought charges much more serious and inflammatory than anything in the AI annual report itself should be made merely as part of a press conference? Did any of them ask where the evidence for these extraordinary allegations was in the report just handed them? Did any of them ask about the legal basis for AI's view of the reach of the Geneva Conventions? Not as far as I could tell reviewing Google and Nexis."
"It has been hard to take Amnesty seriously for a long time, though the press, naturally, will be the last to grasp this fact. Amnesty has made serious factual mistakes--recall the scandal over the reporting of serious human rights violations in Guatemala that turned out to have been made from whole cloth by one of its researchers a few years ago. AI is a latecomer to the arcane world of the international law of war, and within the community of lawyers on these issues, its reputation is not very good--an amateur that depends largely on the ignorance of the press, its brand-name, and logo. In the United States, its leadership represents the far-left political fringe. And in Europe, it simply blows with the winds of fashionable left-wing politics. It has principles, to be sure, all no doubt deeply held--but they shift (and are deeply held, of course, even when shifting) with every breeze of leftish political fashion in Western Europe. One might say that Amnesty International is a serially principled organization.
"Still, with this year's press conferences, AI has slithered over a very big cliff in credibility in the United States, if not in Europe. Julian Ku, the Hofstra international law professor who blogs at Opinio Juris (lawofnations.blogspot.com), maintains that Amnesty is "veering dangerously close to Noam Chomsky/Ramsey Clark-land here." Indeed--and I would add Michael Moore-land and even Lyndon LaRouche-land. AI has not merely veered but plunged deep into those fever swamps--and is proud of it, as befits an organization whose agenda is set on the populist far left of European politics.
"Other leading organizations in the human rights business have been by degrees more circumspect. Human Rights Watch, for example, may feel the same as AI but is more cautious and has called only for a special counsel to examine allegations against U.S. officials. But it, too, is entirely capable of publicity-seeking tantrums on these issues. HRW's latest world report, for instance, opens with an essay by its executive director, Kenneth Roth, which compares Sudan and the United States, Darfur and Abu Ghraib. Roth opens in lawyerly fashion, claiming that "no one would equate the two." He then spends the rest of the essay doing little else. Khartoum's violations are more extensive, while Washington's are actually more insidious because it is more powerful. One is entitled to believe this, I suppose. But here's the rub. If you really believe, as Amnesty does, that Guantanamo is a Stalinist gulag, then you ought really to believe that its authors are the genuine Stalinist article--criminal leaders of a world-class criminal regime. After all, it is Stalins, Berias, and their henchmen who produce Stalinist gulags. Likewise, if you are Human Rights Watch and you really believe in the moral equivalence of Sudan and the United States, then surely you ought to regard U.S. leaders as nothing more than wicked criminals, to be arrested, and their regime isolated and sanctioned, if not actually invaded. Surely you should be urging the virtuecrats of Brussels and all of Europe to break off trade relations with the United States. You should be arguing for a breakup of NATO to isolate the human rights abuser, and perhaps even urging Europe to create the military might necessary to confront the deep evil of the U.S. regime. That's what morally serious people should be doing, after all, in dealing with Sudan and its leaders. We should be contemplating all that and more against the regime in Sudan. And if you really believe in the moral equivalence you rhetorically trumpet, then that's what a principled organization would demand regarding the United States, too.
"But that's not what the human rights organizations do or say in the fine print, is it? On the contrary. Human Rights Watch wants the U.S. government to do many, many things on behalf of HRW's own agenda. Not merely mend its evil ways and stop torturing as HRW defines it--no, the group has an extensive action agenda for the world's wicked superpower and for its human rights abusing military, one that it wants Washington to get moving on right away, wicked or not. To start with, HRW has said that someone--preferably the U.N. Security Council, but failing that a coalition that must necessarily involve the United States--should intervene in Darfur.
"There is much to be said for that position morally, and I admire Human Rights Watch for overcoming its bias for international organizations and against ad hoc coalitions of the willing, in the interests of the people of Darfur. But if the United States is what HRW says it is, why would the arch-criminals--in Washington, that is--care about doing anything so obviously, well, good? Which is it to be? The United States government and its leadership are a gang of criminals who should be isolated, sanctioned, arrested, and condemned as in principle no better than the undeniably criminal Sudanese government--but, by the way, it would be excellent if the Great Satan would also mount its noble charger, rattle its weapons, gird up its loins, and intervene to defend the people of Sudan. Please report to the International Criminal Court's dock in The Hague to be tried for torture and war crimes and what-not--but on your way, could you stop by Darfur, using military force if necessary to protect the people from genocide, make sure the peace treaty ending the war in the south doesn't fall apart, and don't do anything that we might regard as unnecessary collateral damage (we'll be watching, and we'll add anything we don't like to the list of your crimes). And, oh yes, be sure to arrest and bring the wicked Sudanese leaders and militias along with you to The Hague, so they can be prosecuted after we finish with you.
"There is something morally perverse about this. Can you really hold these positions simultaneously and still count yourself a human rights organization acting solely on principle? Unlikely. What it means in the real world, of course, is that these human rights organizations, whether Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, simply indulge themselves in rhetorical overkill. They do not mean what they say. Amnesty instinctively recognized this by putting its nonsensical charges in its press releases and not in its report. Human Rights Watch announces this horrific moral equivalence--then it calls merely for a special counsel to investigate further. Neither group means what it said, even though, like clockwork, letters to the editor will be received next week insisting that they really, really did. We, for our part, instinctively know better.
"We also know that it is suicidally irresponsible for groups that depend on the moral force of their pronouncements to habitually say things they don't actually mean. Rhetorical inflation is a dangerous indulgence for the human rights movement. And it is a bad thing for the cause of human rights."