Recently, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, was denied permission to visit Pfc. Bradley Manning who allegedly handed over U.S. government documents to Wiki Leaks. This comes in the face of allegations that Manning is being tortured in Virginia, possibly while you read this article. He is kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, forced to stand naked and prohibited to exercise. Manning's lawyers have noted that his health has deteriorated significantly.
Juan Mendez knows the damaging effect of torture firsthand. In the 1970s he was tortured by the Argentinean military regime. Since his release, he has dedicated his life to making sure that others do not suffer his fate. His request to be an independent monitor is exactly the type of request that the U.S. often makes of third world countries. When the U.S. calls on Zimbabwe and Burma to open their gates to independent monitors, our government's words hold little credibility. If actions speak louder than words, these countries' dictators rest easily knowing that Obama's administration has no intention of upholding the same standards we attempt to impose on them.
P.J. Crowley recently resigned from his post as State Department spokesman, under pressure from the president, for telling the truth that the torture of Bradley Manning is against our American standards and values. The Obama administration knows Crowley's statements were true, but what is even more dangerous to them is the conclusion this draws: all torture undermines American credibility abroad.
Despite President Obama's announcement on inauguration day that "America does not torture," the U.S. continues its policy of renditions, sending prisoners to other countries with promises that they would not be tortured. But how can anyone be so sure? The president's campaign promise to close Guantanamo, which is seen as a symbol of torture the world over, has yet to come to fruition. The detainees held there will be tried in military courts, which do not hold up to American standards of justice, again undermining our image as a moral leader in the world.
Recent trials of political leaders in Chile, Argentina, Rwanda and Peru have been a step forward for human rights. Breaking with promising world political currents, the Obama administration has decided not to prosecute torturers in our own country. Ample evidence certainly exists to hold trials in the United State for those responsible for torture in Abu Graib, Guantanamo or through renditions. Particularly shocking is how President Bush approved the use of water boarding from his office in Washington -- a practice that Special Rapporteur Mendez publicly denounced last year in an interview with ABC Radio:
How are we going to tell a small country that it has the obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish torture when states with all the wherewithal and all the ability and all the human resources and intelligence and skill to do this, decide not to do it?
Letting Mendez visit Manning may have been a start to the U.S. regaining their position as moral leader in the world. With many against torture, especially against our own citizens, fingers point in blame to the leaders of the world.
Part of the fault surely lies with our political leaders, like President Obama, for their lack of action to end torture and hold those who torture responsible. But more so, I blame the leaders of the human rights community who have allowed this issue to slip from the president's list of priorities. The other part of the fault lies in the silence of informed citizens around the country.
Though Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and an entire gamut of other human rights organizations have released report after scathing report on the issue of torture, they have not mobilized effective citizen action to end the practices. People power is missing. The human rights movement has lost its creative edge and has suffered greatly because of it. Leaders of these organizations need to be bold enough to fill the National Mall with tens of thousands of people who will oppose torture in front of the White House. If comedians like Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck can do it, what's stopping our human rights leaders from doing the same?
The first order of business for the human rights community is to find American leadership to pursue our American torturers and to find a way to mobilize people behind these reports of torture at home and abroad. Someone or some organization who will move people to action, who will chase the American violators of human rights of the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld administration. The human rights community also must mobilize in order to stop the excessive use of drones by the Obama administration. Compared to Bush's use of drones, Obama makes him look weak.
The legal model for torture can be found in any history textbook, but especially it can be seen in the Argentinean human rights records that Juan Mendez knows well. Our human rights leaders must ensure that people like Juan Mendez of the United Nations who have the ability to stop torture are given every opportunity to help. Such an international act will surely grab attention of our political leaders and hopefully give the anti-torture movement the momentum it so desperately needs right now.