Annan Speaks

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

What better time to reflect on outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi
Annan's farewell speech, this morning, at the Truman Presidential
Museum and Library, than on the eve of release of results of an
investigation into alleged ongoing, and routine detainee abuse at
Guantanamo Bay. The report by Colonel Richard Basset, an Army
officer commissioned to investigate the sworn allegations of Marine
Sergeant Heather Cerveny that "a group of sailors she met at a
Guantanamo Bar on September 23 described beating detainees as common
practice," can be expected any day now, and one may expect it to be
riveting, even if it isn't shocking.

What is shocking, but not surprising, is what Mr. Annan had to say, in
a town called Independence, a venue he specifically selected in order
to honor the memory of a former president, Harry Truman, who was
instrumental in founding the U.N. Mr. Annan has chosen this time,
and place, in which to justifiably, and eloquently, criticize the
nation that has been the 500 pound gorilla in the United Nations for
the last 6 years; the Bush regime, in its departure from those
Democratic principles that have distinguished our country, for
generations, under the transparent guise of fighting a war against
terror. "Human rights and the rule of law are vital to global
security and prosperity," said Mr. Annan, and when America "appears to
abandon its own ideals and objectives, its friends abroad are
naturally troubled and confused;" he quotes from President Truman:
"The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate
the peoples of the world." Mr. Annan's concern for the core values
of "global solidarity, mutual accountability and multilaterlism" (AP)
are justified, as is his implication that our country has used the
Security Council as little more than a stage on which to act out our
"national interests."

This remarkable address today at the Truman Museum, reminds us, too,
of a host of inquiries, and allegations into misconduct, by our
military, as well as an ongoing, and unprecedented campaign by those
in authority to blur the line between legitimate questioning and the
use of interrogation techniques that can only be described as torture.
We are reminded of a report by a U.S. military doctor, just about a
year ago ago today, of widespread prisoner abuse by Iraqi police in a
secret Iraqi jail. (Christian Science Monitor)

While the Iraqi interior minister argued with the claim that torture
was the prescribed method of acquiring information from those detained
in this clandestine Iraqi jail, many U.S. soldiers, and other Iraqi
officials corroborated findings of Major R. John Sturkey, a former
U.S. Army doctor who served in Baghdad last year, who says he
"personally treated about a dozen men who had been tortured and
observed an environment of overcrowding and neglect" in the covert
prison. What message do we send to the world when, on the one hand,
Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, says that "the U.S. does not
authorize or condone torture of detainees" and, on the other, senior
members of the administration have argued that the UN Convention
Against Torture treaty rules against "cruel, inhuman, and degrading
treatment" do not apply to enemy combatants.

Around Thanksgiving-time, last year, in a press conference, as
reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Joint Chief of Staff
Chairman, General Peter Pace, insisted that "it's absolutely the
responsibility of every US service member if they see inhumane
treatment being conducted to intervene to stop it," to which Defense
Secretary Rumsfeld responded: "I don't think you mean they have an
obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it." To the
contrary, General Pace argued: "If they are physically present when
inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to
try and stop it."

While there may be ambivalence regarding how to respond to torture, on
the part of the upper echelons of the U.S. military, there doesn't
appear to be much ambivalence on the part of the American people. In
a recent poll of nine countries, when queried as to whether they think
it's ever acceptable to torture terrorists to obtain information as
part of an interrogation process, 36% of Americans surveyed said that
torture is never acceptable placing the U.S. second from last, and
above South Korea only; 60% of those Italians surveyed said torture
must never be used to interrogate, followed by 54% of Spanish
surveyed, and 48% of British said torture is never acceptable.

Yes, you're right, Italy and Spain are highly religious, and largely
Catholic countries, but the U.S. ranks as among the top nations, in
the industrialized world, in which "religion," and religious
practices, are of critical importance; we have a president who is
"born again," and are currently waging a "holy war" against the Middle
East. Yet, ironically, we find ourselves significantly below Great
Britain, notably 12 percentage points, in a survey addressing the
issue of whether it's ever appropriate to inflict cruel and inhuman
punishment. Is this what we've brought with us to the New World,
over the past 200 odd years, a greater tolerance for torture, as well
as inflicting pain and suffering on others?

All those for whom the words "human rights" still resonate applaud the
remarks of Kofi Annan, as well as his appreciation of President
Truman's efforts at multilateralism, but one can't help but remember,
too, the words of another president, Mr. Truman's predecessor,
Woodrow Wilson, in his address to the Senate, back in July, 1919,
which are, alas, also eerily appropriate: "The monster that had
resorted to arms must be put in chains that could not be broken."
While Mr. Wilson was referring to Germany, how sad to think that,
nearly a century later, they might just as well apply to us.

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