As long as institutions are created and staffed by human beings, rather than gods, they will be imperfect. At best. What distinguishes the good institutions from the bad is not whether they make mistakes, but how they handle mistakes when they occur.
Recently I visited our military’s much-maligned detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I found the prisoners there were treated humanely and justly, living in conditions that meet–indeed, far exceed–Geneva Convention standards for prisoner treatment.
It’s not prudent to speculate on the motives behind the histrionic criticisms of Gitmo recently launched by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But if these institutions truly wish to advance human rights, they would do far better to focus on the Defense Department’s response to prisoner-abuse scandals–and hold it up as a model for security forces around the world.
Sensational headlines may be a boon for fundraising, but they do not always spur reform. Remember the tempest over Abu Ghraib? The world was shocked and enraged at the sight of those photos of prisoner abuse. But well before those photos were published, the U.S. military had recognized the problems and was moving to correct them–in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan.
How, exactly, has the Pentagon responded? It has moved decisively to hold the actors accountable. More than 390 criminal investigations are either in progress or completed. So far, there have been 50 referrals to courts-martial, more than 85 non-judicial punishments, and 26 administrative actions. At Abu Ghraib alone, the commanding general was relieved of duty and reduced in rank, the Intelligence Brigade commander was relieved, there were eight courts-martial, four officers received non-judicial punishment, and action is still pending for another 13 soldiers.
The Defense Department’s prompt and painstaking response to improper conduct demonstrates its appreciation of the importance of detention operations and its commitment to both the humane treatment of prisoners and accountability. That’s something Amnesty International should be promoting as a model for other nations–even some of our allies in the war on terrorism.
Consider Thailand. An ally of the United States, Thailand is battling a Muslim insurgency in its southern provinces that may have connections with international terrorists. Unfortunately, the negligence and lack of accountability of the Thai security forces are making the situation worse. In October 2004, Thai forces arrested 1,000 protesters. Eighty-four of them died in custody, most from suffocation while crowded in trucks.
Thai authorities conducted an investigation, but the result was the transfer–not demotion, not court-martial, just the transfer–of three generals. No one was court-martialed, or received any other punishment. Today, the insurgency in Thailand remains active, with the level of brutality on both sides increasing, not declining.
Thailand is not alone. The Philippines and Indonesia are also fighting homegrown terrorists, and they too are experiencing problems in law enforcement and the detention of prisoners. The United States and responsible international nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights should share the American experience to our allies in the war on terrorism.
Of course, “responsible NGO” means the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not Human Rights Watch (HRW) or Amnesty International (AI). One lesson learned by the American armed forces is that the ICRC is a valuable partner in assuring the humane treatment of prisoners, while AI and HRW are thinly disguised partisan political organizations.
ICRC has maintained an active presence at Guantanamo Bay since 2002 and has interviewed all of the detainees. But rather than sex up its reports and blare them to the media, ICRC sends their first-hand assessments, in confidence, to the responsible governments. This gives officials the chance to correct mistakes without public outcry, an important consideration for many developing countries.
Brigadier General Jay Hood, the commander of the detention facilities, says that ICRC suggestions helped him create a detention facility that meets all the international standards. In addition to the ICRC, more than 1,000 journalists have visited Gitmo, plus eleven senators, 77 congressmen, 99 congressional staffers, and, of course, lawyers for the detainees. Despite a plethora of available eyewitness testimony to the humane conditions in American military detention facilities, AI denounced Guantanamo as the “gulag of our times,” and HRW compared Abu Ghraib to Darfur.
Detention operations play a vital role in the war on terrorism. American military police maintain a “detention” specialty to operate prisons and handle prisoners. Militaries in developing countries need similar training. International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds should be made available to countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia to train their soldiers in law-enforcement and prisoner-detention specialties. That’s a much safer alternative than falsely screaming “gulag!”
–Retired Army Major Dana R. Dillon is senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.