What My Imprisonment in South Africa Taught Me About Yemen

08/28/2013 12:30 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2013

In 1986, I spent three and a half months in prison for campaigning against apartheid in South Africa. I'll never forget my anger as the door shut behind me for the first time. But I did not for a moment question my commitment to opposing injustice and the government's repressive policies of discrimination and segregation. When I was released -- thanks in part to Amnesty International designating me a prisoner of conscience and writing letters to secure my freedom -- I was more determined than ever before to end apartheid and dedicate my life to a fundamental principle of the international human rights movement: all people are equal in dignity and rights.

Too often, the U.S. government has turned its back on this principle of equality, and today's policies on Yemen are a glaring example. Media estimate that in the last month, about 40 people have died in a series of strikes in Yemen, and nearly all of their identities are at this time unknown, adding to the more than 4,000 people reportedly killed in drone strikes overall. Though he recently acknowledged the death of four U.S. citizens, President Obama has never been willing to put names or numbers to the non-American civilians killed, nor has he acknowledged or justified the recent U.S. strikes in Yemen. Closer to home, the president continues to hold 89 Yemenis at the Guantanamo Bay prison, including 56 who are have been cleared by the CIA and other U.S. agencies for transfer. For many of these men, it is their national origin, not their own past actions, that now condemns them to continued imprisonment -- for months, years, and possibly lifetimes.

Though not rife with the blatant racism that underlay apartheid, these abusive practices persist because the rights and dignity of non-Americans are treated as expendable. Imagine for a moment the U.S. government killing, without explanation, 40 white, Christian Americans in Utah, whom the media termed right-wing "suspected militants" though the government provided no evidence to prove it. Or imagine American prisons holding 89 white Christian American "extremists" without charge or trial, including 56 who a government task force had cleared to leave.

President Obama has sought to distance himself from the abusive post-9/11 policies of torture and rendition, and his Administration has repudiated some of the most Islamophobic rhetoric dominating debates about national security. Yet the message that Guantanamo and secret drone strikes send to the world is that white American lives are worth more than brown or black lives. That is unacceptable.

To be clear: this isn't about tolerating terrorism. We all want justice for the 9/11 attacks and we all want security from attacks by armed groups. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Indefinite detention and drone strikes outside the bounds of international human rights law are the wrong way.

The right way is to use criminal justice and law enforcement techniques that are effective and compliant with human rights. A human rights approach means that not only are the rights of victims of terrorism upheld, but so too are the rights of the accused. The principle of equality -- that no one is above the law or below it -- protects all of us from abuse.

A human rights approach to countering terrorism in Yemen would mean that those suspected of crimes are fairly tried in courts that meet international standards. It would mean that victims of abuses in Yemen have their right to remedy upheld.

It would mean that drone strikes in Yemen outside of recognized zones of armed conflict must comply with the rule in human rights law that lethal force can only be used if, at the time of its use, it is strictly unavoidable in response to an imminent threat of death in self-defense or defense of others.

It would mean that the Yemeni Guantanamo detainees, like all others, must each either be charged and fairly tried in courts that meet international standards, or be released.

And it would mean rejecting the concept, introduced by President Bush and carried over by President Obama, of a "global war" against armed groups that denies the centrality of international human rights law to judging U.S. actions around the world.

It's time to take a new approach and put human rights at the center of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Ann Burroughs is the Board Chair for Amnesty International USA and the Executive Director of the Taproot Foundation, Los Angeles

This post has been updated since its original publication.