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Overseas reaction: Disgust over Abu Ghraib, disbelief over Guantanamo

COMMENTARY | February 20, 2006

Says an Arab paper: “The US has to be judged by its own standards. That is what is so damaging about Guantanamo. It makes the US out to be dishonest. It is ‘do as I say’ not ‘do as I do.’”

By John Burke


PARIS—Those outside the United States don’t challenge the right of nations to hold suspected enemies in prisons during wartime. But when those prisons hold suspects without charging them, are erected secretly for “interrogation” purposes, or are found to be havens for gross human rights violations, they begin to question a nation’s integrity.

Newly released images of torture at Abu Ghraib accompanied by a United Nations directive to shut down Guantanamo Bay’s holding cells put what is perhaps the most controversial facet of the “War on Terror” back in the international spotlight.

Foreign reaction, be it from pro or anti-American nations, was overwhelmingly united.

Apart from the disgust over the violent images from the Iraqi prison, the most common sentiment was one of disbelief that the United States stubbornly refuses to discontinue its methods of incarceration by closing the Cuban penitentiary.

The foreign press didn’t necessarily claim a higher moral ground for their respective nations. But it was universally understood that the image of freedom, democracy and honor that the world’s sole superpower portrays is seriously compromised by its prison practices.

Arab News' leader, “Contempt for Law:”

“It shows an amazing contempt for the law by a government that makes much about how it is fighting the war on terror and bringing freedom and democracy to the world and that democracy is not just about elections and majorities, it is also about respecting the law. Yet when it comes to Guantanamo, it is a different story; the Bush administration uses it to openly flout its own laws. This destroys Washington’s credibility and make (sic) the war it is fighting all the more difficult to win…

“Americans, understandably, take deep exception to complaints about their conduct from countries they consider to have far worse human rights records than them; it is gross hypocrisy they say. That is not the point. The US has to be judged by its own standards. That is what is so damaging about Guantanamo. It makes the US out to be dishonest. It is ‘do as I say’ not ‘do as I do.’”

The Middle East Times summed up what Arab papers around the world said about the latest developments in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo situations; London based, Palestinian owned daily Al Quds Al Arabi on Abu Ghraib:

"President Saddam never presented himself as a leader of the free Western world and messenger of democracy for the Arabs and Third World, like President George W. Bush who invaded and occupied Iraq, killed 100,000 of its people under the pretext of spreading the culture of human rights and democratic freedoms.

“(The paper went on to say that) US official justifications that these violations were carried out by a small number of soldiers was totally unacceptable because these troops represent the American government and because ‘it doesn't need 150,000 troops to torture prisoners’.”

Quatar’s Al Rayah said “that had the abuse of prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison been committed by any developing Third World country, international reaction, especially American, would have been filled with denunciation and punishment ‘that perhaps includes the liberation of the concerned country in defense of humanity’. (The paper) opined that torture, rape, sodomy and murder continue, which it said reflects the ‘decline of the values of American civilization to a point never witnessed in history’”.

The Jordan Times commented on the inadequacy of the inspections at Gitmo in the editorial, “To Restore American Credibility, It's Time to Close Guantanamo”:

“The experts were never granted unfettered access to the detention center. Their individual requests had gone unheeded since 2002, while their requests for access as a group, as of 2004, were answered with the offer of an organized tour - an offer that the experts were forced to refuse after it was made clear to them they would not be allowed to talk directly to detainees.

“Even Jordanian legislation - which undoubtedly still has a long way to go before effectively guaranteeing and protecting human rights across the board - offers more guarantees than that.”

The Morrocan daily Aujourd’hui writes (in French) under the headline “Abu Ghraib II”:

“The biggest defeat of the coalition will probably not be a military one. No, the worst of the defeats risks being moral.

“The Danish cartoons and the Abu Ghraib images are among the best recruiting agents for an increasingly lively strain of Islamist extremists. After Hamas, who’s next?”

Malaysia’s New Straits Times’ piece, “Hungry Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”:

“But the US line on this is clear, and unlikely to alter: The abuses at Abu Ghraib were aberrations; the work of psychopaths and renegades who have since been dealt with. Besides, all this happened back then, during the first year of the US coalition’s occupation of Iraq. A brutal time…

“The perdurable American delusion that everyone would want what America has to offer would be almost charmingly naive, were it not so dangerous. Where Messrs Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush leave off, Howard Stern picks up?

“There are those under those satellites’ footprints who would consider the very idea a humiliation. If the US persists in disregarding them as a minority, it should consider the worldwide damage that can be done by just 25 prison guards, 20 aircraft hijackers, or 12 cartoonists.

Australia’s The Age considers that the “UN and Europe are right: Guantanamo must close:”

“Adding to the pressure on the US, the European Parliament this week voted overwhelmingly for a resolution urging that the prison be closed and inmates given a fair trial, and a British High Court judge called for the repatriation of three British residents. He observed: ‘America's idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations.’

“Winston Churchill once said: "The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgement of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist." If the US is to be true to its mission as "the land of the free", it must act on the UN recommendations and close this sorry chapter in its history without delay.”

The German news magazine Der Spiegel reviewed opinions of the German press under the headline, “Abu Guantanamo.”

“In Germany, the two developments are seen as being closely related because they deepen the impression that the administration of US President George W. Bush is one that endorses and even encourages torture. In editorials, most newspapers on Friday call for Guantanamo to be closed -- at once and forever.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung: "The criticism is as old as the latest pictures from Abu Ghraib: American (sic) needs to learn again that it must even treat its worst enemies in harmony with its own values and the constitution."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "The difference between the two cases is, to be courteous, that in Iraq the case involved excesses that political leaders and the highest military leaders didn't even know about," the paper opines. "For political reasons, however, Guantanamo has become of place of strongly diluted rule of law." The demand that the camp be closed is a question of principle, and it requires no inspections of the camp. "But both cases have one dramatic commonality," the paper concludes: "They are warping and clouding the image of America in the Islamic world and they are thwarting Washington's efforts in the countries there where it is trying to spread democracy."

Die Welt: It's easy to get the impression from these images that the "war on terror" is a dirty one. Because of these images and information that has come out of Guantanamo, it is also easy the get the impression that the United States, which operates under the alias of morals and democracy, is actually exercising base human instincts. But that's not true, and the West proves this everyday, the paper writes. "It was the US that initiated an investigation after the (first) photos were released," the paper notes. Then it produced a report that about criminal activities by American troops that ultimately led to their imprisonment. And it was the British who were outraged by a video of UK troops beating Iraqi prisoners. And it was the Europeans who, in the cartoon fight, asked themselves almost to the point self-denial what mistakes they had made.  

France’s weekly Nouvel Observateur (in French) interviewed the president of Amnesty International France, Geneviève Sevrin, who said:

“Many elements indicate that the United States is beginning to worry. They revealed that more than half the prisoners at Guantanamo were on a hunger strike, with the risk of dying, which would obviously look bad. The fact that the prisoners have been allowed to present a motion to the American Supreme Court is also an important turning point. The administration is looking to jam a stick in their spokes: this is the sign of a deep uneasiness. The fact that a supreme court could eventually recognize that the administration has violated the Geneva conventions could mark a precedent.”

An op-ed piece by journalist, blogger, and documentary film-maker, Alain Hertoghe, on the increasingly popular and well-respected French citizen journalism site, Agora Voz (in French) urges, “Mr. President, close Guantanamo!”

“George W. Bush had the immense merit to be the first to understand, the day after the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington, the magnitude of the challenge launched against America and the West. A war of a new genre was declared. He rapidly understood the terrifying menace that the cocktail of jihadism and Gulf states armed or arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction represented. This combat for our liberties and those of Muslim people must continue to be directed with determination and without weakness.

“But today, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib represent the Achilles heel for the cause of democracy…

“But (the photos) remind us that only the provocateurs (seven soldiers of inferior rank) were condemned for these grave acts. This is unacceptable. Officers of superior rank can’t only be accountable for the victories and brave acts of their subordinates. They must also be accountable for their defeats and their embarrassing actions. This is the total sense of the word ‘responsible.’ It is urgent that the Pentagon act on all of the occurrences that we know of, at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and on those that we don’t yet know about.”

Mexico’s La Cronica published an editorial (in Spanish) entitled “The photos that we see of Abu Ghraib and those that we don’t see from Guantanamo,” beginning by citing several images that have defined history, including one of a nude Vietnamese girl fleeing from a fire caused by a napalm bomb:

“The American public, accustomed to believing the official propaganda that it lives in the most civilized country in the world and is the vanguard of liberties, was reminded of the image of the Vietnamese girl and began to question if the maltreatment and humiliation of Iraqis was justified…

“President Bush is gravely mistaken if he thinks that to permit the torture of prisoners is a useful tool for combating terrorism. Neither Abu Ghraib nor Guantanamo nor the secret CIA prisons has helped to capture the intellectual authors of the 9/11 attack or avoid future savage attacks against civilians. On the contrary, torture frequently converts the victims into martyrs and becomes an example for young fanatic Muslims to follow.”

Dick Cheney

Most of the foreign press had a laugh over how the American press was having a laugh over the Vice President’s hunting accident. But The Economist (paid subscription) looked at the broader picture, wondering what Cheney was doing out there to begin with while taking a different angle than Maureen Dowd's “Why aren’t these guys working on weekends?”:

“One thing was almost entirely ignored—the fact that Mr Cheney was spending his weekend slaughtering innocent birds in the first place.

“In many European countries, no ambitious politician would want to be seen with a hunting rifle in his hands and a cuddly animal in his sights. In America, politicians go to great lengths to get seen doing just that…

“The real worry for hunters is, or should be, class… “The biggest decline in hunters is taking place among the working class—among the “Deer Hunter” crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the South and the cowboys of the West. Their places are being taken by moneyed professionals, the sort of people who weren't brought up to hunt but who discovered that it is a good way to flash their money and make connections. The number of hunters with household incomes above $100,000 increased by more than a quarter in the 1990s.

“Mr Cheney's own expedition was a lot closer to “Gosford Park” than “The Deer Hunter”—a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense.

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