Gonzales Nomination Draws Cautions, Concerns of Rights Groups
Published on Wednesday, November 11, 2004 by OneWorld.net
Gonzales Nomination Draws Cautions, Concerns of Rights Groups
by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON – The nomination by President George W. Bush of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to be the next Attorney General has been greeted with caution and concern by major U.S. human and civil-rights groups that called on the Senate to be especially probing in considering his record and convictions.

Human Rights First (HRF), formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said it was “deeply troubled” by the nomination, asserting that, “in his words and actions, Mr. Gonzales has not demonstrated a principled commitment to upholding core constitutional principles and the rule of law.”

The U.S. section of Amnesty International (AIUSA) echoed that view and called further for the full disclosure of any unpublished measures, directives or memoranda authored by Gonzales or his staff bearing on the legality of “disappearances,” torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of detainees in the administration’s “war on terrorism.”

It also called on Gonzales himself to make a “clear and unequivocal statement that, in accordance with U.S. and international law, he opposes torture and ill-treatment under any circumstances, including war and any other public emergency” and to publicly support the creation of a wholly independent commission of inquiry of U.S. detention and interrogation practices in the terror war.

At the same time, the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights (LCCR), which is the largest U.S. civil and human rights coalition, welcomed what it called the “historic” nomination of a Latino citizen to a top cabinet post but called for careful scrutiny of his role in providing legal justification for torture and other practices that have taken place in Afghanistan , Iraq , and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“In his role as White House Counsel, Mr. Gonzales oversaw the development and implementation of policies related to the war on terror that raise significant human rights concerns,” said LCCR’s executive director, Wade Henderson. ”The Attorney General of the United States has the awesome responsibility to respect the rule of law and to ensure that the rights of all persons under the jurisdiction of the United States are protected.”

If confirmed, Gonzales, a close Bush confidante since 1995 when then-Texas Gov. Bush recruited him as his legal counsel, would be the first Latino to serve in a top Cabinet post.

The second child in a poor Hispanic family of ten whose Houston home lacked hot water and a telephone, Gonzales graduated high school with honors, spent two years at the Air Force Academy before finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree at Rice University and going on to Harvard Law School.

He became the first minority partner at Vinson & Elkins, Texas’ most powerful law firm before his selection as legal counsel to the up-and-coming Bush who subsequently appointed him secretary of state and then to the state’s Supreme Court where he gained a reputation as a moderate conservative.

As White House Counsel, however, Gonzales has been associated with a number of controversial positions, among them his expansive claims of “executive privilege” in order to withhold documents from Congress and his defense of some of the more far-reaching provisions of the USA Patriot Act. His office has also played a key role in screening Bush’s judicial nominees, a process that, according to critics, has been aimed at ensuring that they share the president’s rightwing views.

Despite his reputation as a relative moderate, Gonzales’ own legal team, as well those of the outgoing attorney general, John Ashcroft, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, has been dominated by members of the arch-conservative Federalist Society, a group dedicated to opposing the “liberal ideology” it says dominates the U.S. legal profession and the encroachment of international legal norms on U.S. domestic jurisprudence.

A number of memoranda drafted by Federalist Society associates and cleared by Gonzales and bearing on the detention and treatment of suspects in Bush’s “war on terrorism” now make up the focus of concern by the civil and human rights groups. Gonzales and his associates have argued for three years that the Geneva Conventions do not protect foreign terrorist suspects seized by U.S. forces overseas.

Thus, in January, 2002, a memorandum signed by Gonzales asserted that “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war” that “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

Similarly, an August, 2002, Justice Department memo cleared by Gonzales asserted that U.S. laws and international treaties banning torture do “not apply to the President’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants.”

The same memo defined torture as pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

These opinions were strongly opposed by the State Department and military lawyers in the Pentagon and subsequently denounced in particularly strong terms by the American Bar Association (ABA), among groups.

“This no-rules-apply approach helped lay the groundwork for the widespread incidents of torture and abuse we’ve now seen from Iraq to Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay,” said HRF’s U.S. Law and Security Program Director, Deborah Pearlstein, who noted that Gonzales’ defense of detaining “enemy combatants” in the United States without access to counsel or an opportunity to contest their detention before an independent tribunal was repudiated by an 8-1 ruling by the Supreme Court last June.

“The nomination of Mr. Gonzales sends the wrong message to our country and to the world,” said Pearlstein, who added that the Senate “must ask (him) if he believes the United States is bound to observe the Geneva Conventions …and whether (he) would uphold legal restrictions under U.S. and international law prohibiting all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

William Schulz, AIUSA’s executive director echoed Pearlstein’s appeals, noting that Gonzales’ confirmation hearings should be used as “an opportunity to examine U.S. policy and practice that helped lead to the scandal of Abu Ghraib, seek testimony on unanswered questions regarding the development of those policies from a key participant, and seek assurances that the future Attorney General will vigorously enforce the universal prohibition on the use of torture.”

Schulz also said Gonzales should publicly support the establishment of an independent inquiry into the abuses and their origin as has been demanded by AIUSA, HRF, Human Rights Watch, and the American Bar Association (ABA), among others. Until now, the Pentagon and the White House have refused to heed these appeals, insisting that the Defense Department’s own investigations were sufficient.

Gonzales’ reluctance to apply international law goes back to 1997 when, as then-Gov. Bush’s legal counsel, he wrote a memo justifying Texas’ non-compliance with the Vienna Convention which is supposed to ensure that foreign consulates are informed of the arrests of their nationals in the United States and given an opportunity to provide legal representation to the accused.

Gonzales argued that the treaty did not apply to Texas because it was not a signatory of the Convention. Two days later, the state executed a Mexican citizen over Mexico’s protests that the condemned man’s rights under the Vienna Convention had been violated. Mexico’s position was upheld by the World Court earlier this year.

© 2004 OneWorld.net