If war has been mankind’s most powerful negative urge, then the universal agreements that limit the horrors of war and protect civilians have been the hallmark of progress and have reflected man’s deeper instincts for civilization. The Geneva Convention may not have halted the Jewish holocaust, Rwandan genocide, or terrorism but they have given us a code of conduct by which we can judge the actions of our leaders in the desperate times of war. That is why the decision by President Bush on February 7, 2002, to deny captured al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist suspects prisoner of war (POW) status or any access to justice was a step backward for the United States and for mankind – one that has haunted the United States, its allies and the international legal system ever since. Whereas in the West it created a furious debate about civil liberties, in the Muslim World it further entrenched dictatorship and abuse of civilians.The name of the chapter is, aptly, America Shows the Way.
For the greatest power on earth to wage its “war on terrorism” by rejecting the very rules of war it is a signatory to, denying justice at home, undermining the U.S. Constitution, and then pressurizing its allies to do the same set in motion a devastating denial of civilized instincts. America's example had the most impact in Afghanistan, where no legal system existed; in Pakistan, ruled by a military regime; and in Central Asia, where the world's most repressive dictatorships flourished. By following America's lead in promoting or condoning disappearances, torture, and secret jails, these countries found their path to democracy and their struggle against Islamic extremism set back by decades. Western-led nation building had little credibility if it denied justice to the very people it was supposed to help. It could well be argued that over time Islamic extremists were emboldened rather than subdued by the travesty of justice the United States perpetrated. The people learned to hate America.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
A devastating denial of civilized instincts
Reading this essay on Torture and the War on Terror, a new book by Tzvetan Todorov, I was reminded of a passionately argued chapter on the same topic by Ahmed Rashid in Descent Into Chaos. This is how it begins: