Thursday, May 26, 2005

Political Amnesty

Babble on.

Last night on CBC radio, I heard a clip of some Amnesty International twit calling Guantanamo Bay the "gulag of our time." I made a mental note to blog about what a completely ludicrous statement that was, about how far AI has fallen, yadda, yadda. Fortunately for all of you, a much better writer beat me to it:

The sheer ignorance of that statement is astounding. How many people are being held at Guantanamo? Between 500 and 600. Read the full AI report. Try to ignore the hysterical tone. Compare what is going on in Guantanamo to what happened in the Soviet gulag (I can only assume that is the gulag to which Khan is referring): more than twenty million people were condemned to spend time in the gulag; more than four million died there. Four million. Even if the US had slaughtered every single person who ever passed through the gates of Gitmo, the number wouldn't approach one thousand.

If you read the whole piece, as I would strongly encourage you to, Bob makes mention of his general respect for Amnesty International and its mission. I used to share that respect. I remember being deeply affected in high-school learning of the brutality of the Pinochet regime in Chile through Amnesty International. Exposing that sort of systematic, ongoing, unrepentant abuse is an extremely important task, one at which AI excelled.

That's what makes AI Secretary General Khan's statement so irresponsible. When a trusted organization engages in such obvious hyperbole about such a critically serious subject, it does immeasurable damage to its own credibility. In the case of Amnesty, that loss of credibility eventually hurts the political prisoners and victims of real torture they try to protect. Calling Gitmo the "gulag of our time" cheapens the much greater suffering of state victims in North Korea, to pick one example. How is Amnesty supposed to describe those concentration camps at this point? The "double gulags of our time?" By using this terminology, Amnesty has put an equals sign between groups of prisoners whose situations are wildly different. I believe that can only lessen our sympathy for those whose plight is the most dire.

I find it disgraceful that an organization devoted to alleviating human suffering should dilute our sympathy for true victims through such blind partisanship and incompetence.

I'm not suggesting that Amnesty International ignore the extrajudicial situation in Guantanamo - far from it. Point out loud and long and clear that the U.S. can't have it both ways: the prisoners are either POW's, in which case military protocols apply, or they aren't, in which case civilian ones should. This legal pergatory at Gitmo should shame a country built on the rule of law. But the failure to place this particular American disgrace in its proper context set against state-sanctioned mutilation, mass executions, and the extermination of entire families to stifle dissent is exactly what drives committed, principled liberals from the modern left.

As long as they allow politics, rather than suffering to drive their agenda, they will have forfeited my support. What a crying shame.

Babble off.

Update: It turns out Tarantino isn't the only fine fellow who can write more eloquently on this topic than I can. Read this WaPo editorial, and thank Damian Penny for pointing it out to me:

It's always sad when a solid, trustworthy institution loses its bearings and joins in the partisan fracas that nowadays passes for political discourse. It's particularly sad when the institution is Amnesty International, which for more than 40 years has been a tough, single-minded defender of political prisoners around the world and a scourge of left- and right-wing dictators alike. True, Amnesty continues to keep track of the world's political prisoners, as it has always done, and its reports remain a vital source of human rights information. But lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world's dictators but for the United States.
Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies. It also gives the administration another excuse to dismiss valid objections to its policies as "hysterical."

I'll say it again: what a crying shame.


At 12:56 p.m., Blogger Greg said...

I knew as soon as I saw "gulag" they were in trouble. It was the wrong word to use, but Gitmo is just the tip of the iceberg, B. When the history of this period is written, it will be seen as a very dark period indeed. I am glad you are not excusing the U.S. for its actions, but I think jumping on "gulag" will be a way for some of your brethren to do just that.

At 1:37 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

It may be the tip of the iceberg as you say, Greg. I'm not so sure, but I've been wrong before.

But even if the U.S. has a whole iceberg of human rights abuses going on that we don't know about, there's a damned trans-polar glacial sheet of torture and injustice going on elsewhere.

The fact that Amnesty would choose to drag its spotlight away from the greater abuse to exaggerate the lesser astounds and disappoints me to no end.

At 2:33 p.m., Blogger Greg said...

Part of it is PR. Afterall we are talking about human rights today. Part of it is political as you say. But part of it is heartfelt. It is no surprise the North Korea tortures people. Evil rat bastards do that. It is a surprise when the U.S. does it too. It just makes it harder for the U.S. to turn to that prick Kim and say don't torture people.

At 3:23 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

True. But Amnesty's report also makes it tougher for both Amnesty and the U.S. to turn to Dear Rat Bastard Kim, since the unmitigated evils perpetrated at his mass murder and slave labour camps have been minimized in comparison to the U.S. detention centre in Cuba. And it makes it tougher for average folks like me to take what they say seriously. If they'll blow something like this - something obvious - out of all proportion, what else are they exaggerating?

This crying wolf will only hurt them in the long run, and that hurts those prisoners most bereft of hope. It's irresponsible.

At 3:39 p.m., Blogger David M. McClory said...

AI's labeling has an ironic component as well.

Back in the days when the Gulag still existed, AI was mostly interested in Communists, Socialists and Marxists imprisoned without trial or rights in 3rd world countries.

It took years of criticism to get them to look at Muslim activists receiving often worse treatment.

Of course, some of these survived and took to nihilistic murder from the 90s on.


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