Published on Wednesday, May 26, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
Now Bush Must Rise to De Mello's Challenge
by Salim Lone
P resident Bush's major Iraq policy address on Monday night seemed a recitation of earlier themes, but towards the end there was something new: Abu Ghraib prison was to be razed. There was "disgraceful conduct [there] by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values". Antennas went up to hear more about how the president might address continuing revelations of US torture and bestial treatment of Iraqis that have shredded American standing around the world. There was nothing.
The speech was, of course, laced with repeated denunciations of the inhumanity of Iraqis fighting the occupation. They are "brutal", they show "contempt for all the rules of warfare and the bounds of civilized behavior". But clearly the period of US penitence over the abuse is now well past; it is once again only the "enemy" who is brutal.
For a while, though, it had been wondrous for Arabs and Muslims to behold the workings of a free society trying to get to the truth. But this is dwarfed by the deeds that spawned it. And the seismic repercussions we are witnessing flow from the fact that, for Arabs and Muslims, these pictures came not as revelations but as confirmation of a perceived western desire to crush them. Since 9/11, some prominent Americans have discussed legalizing torture, and, within Iraq, US commanders have made sure Iraqis understand that US gloves are off. When one senior military official was asked if seeming support for insurgents was a problem, he explained that "with a heavy dose of fear and violence and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince people that we are here to help."
Western commentators have pointed out that the sexual torture US troops inflicted on Iraqi prisoners is particularly odious in Arab culture. This is obviously true, but far too much has been made of it. How different would US outrage be if Saddam Hussein's army had inflicted this terror on American prisoners? Remember how loudly US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld protested that Al-Jazeera's broadcasting of two US PoWs being questioned violated the Geneva conventions.
Those of us who were in Iraq this time last year, including the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN secretary general's first envoy to Iraq, heard terrible stories about prisoner mistreatment during interrogations. Abu Ghraib, the living symbol of Saddam Hussein's terrors, had become the same under the "liberators". On Arabic language television, one regularly saw heartbreaking scenes of women at Abu Ghraib pleading in vain with US officials about the whereabouts of their husbands, brothers or sons. The insurgents attacked Abu Ghraib more regularly than any other occupation target, no doubt to win popular sympathy.
Sergio was courageous enough to forcefully take up the Iraqi prisoner-abuse issue, all the way to the UN security council. He had visited Abu Ghraib, he told the council, and raised with the US ambassador Paul Bremer his "concerns regarding searches, arrests, the treatment of detainees, duration of preventive detention, and access by family members and lawyers". He said he had expressed to Mr Bremer "the imperative need for the coalition forces to demonstrate exemplary compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law. Anything less must not prevail in today's Iraq."
It is sad to see that, instead, we were left with a US that points to the unspeakable atrocity of Michael Berg's beheading and Saddam Hussein's torture chambers to counteract its own revelations of torture and killing.
Iraq has now effectively been lost to the US; the damage from being so grossly exposed about its commitment to Iraqi freedoms and human rights cannot be overcome. The US has also suffered severe setbacks over Fallujah and Muqtada al-Sadr. It will now only be able to stay on in Iraq through the use of progressively greater violence against ever larger numbers of Iraqis. The only way for the US to avoid greater disaster in Iraq is to lower its ambitions and engage with the UN security council to fashion a political solution.
To prevent further major damage to its image beyond Iraq, the US must vigorously pursue genuine accountability from those at the highest level for the abuse and deaths; the apologies initially offered are now seen to have been entirely pro forma. Mr Rumsfeld, more concerned to show solidarity with US troops, did not even deign to apologize to Iraqi detainees when he flew in to Abu Ghraib.
Much more importantly, the US should declare that the pursuit of human rights will once again be its pre-eminent principle in guiding its global alliances, and that it will from now on follow the letter and the spirit of the Geneva conventions for all prisoners taken in any war. And from the position of the enormous strength it carries, it should reach out to the world as a political and moral leader committed to improving humanity's lot.
Nothing less will save it from the international isolation and the road to ruin that it is inexorably heading towards, under the neoconservative agenda's contempt for global norms and international cooperation.
Salim Lone was director of communications for the UN mission in Baghdad headed by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was among 17 people killed in a bomb attack on August 19 2003
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004