WASHINGTON - Riding over opposition from its Democratic members, the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday voted 10-8 to send the nomination of Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales to the full Senate for confirmation, possibly as early as next week.
In another widely anticipated victory for Pres. George W. Bush, his former national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, easily won confirmation as the new secretary of state today, in an 85-13 vote.
The nation's leading human and civil rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Human Rights First (HRF, formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, are urging the Senate to reject Gonzales on the basis of his advice regarding the treatment of detainees in the Bush administration's ”war on terror”.
”The Leadership Conference recognises the historic significance of Mr. Gonzales' appointment as the first Hispanic American to serve as attorney-general,” said Wade Henderson, LCCR executive director.
Gonzales and Bush are shown Nov. 10, 2004. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
However, ”we remain unconvinced that Mr. Gonzales would independently enforce the law, rather than continue to simply rationalise it, as he did while serving then-Governor and now President Bush,” he added.
In separate statements, HRW and HRF noted that it was the first time they were opposing a Cabinet-level nomination since they came into existence more than a quarter century ago.
”Mr. Gonzales is a talented and experienced lawyer with an inspiring personal history,” said Michael Posner, HRF's founder and director. ”But he helped to open the door to abuses that have undermined discipline in the military, put American fighting men and women at greater risk, and denied the United States the moral high ground.”
”For over 25 years, Human Rights Watch has worked to stamp out torture around the world,” HRW declared in a statement issued Monday. ”That struggle has been made harder by the legal positions adopted by the Bush administration, including Mr. Gonzales' refusal to state that a President could not lawfully order torture.
”Statements against torture in the abstract are welcome, but they are no substitute for the strong hand of the law in protecting human dignity and ensuring the human rights of all people,” according to the group.
It issued a separate release Tuesday deploring a new statement attributed to Gonzales in which he contended that no law or international convention prevents the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from treating detainees inhumanely, so long as that treatment takes place outside the United States.
The broad coalition of national human rights organisations now on record as opposing his nomination also includes Physicians for Human Rights, Global Rights (formerly the International Human Rights Law Group), the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the International League for human Rights, the Open Society Institute, Center for Constitutional Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the National Alliance for Human Rights, Alliance for Justice, and the Mexican Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
In a statement issued last week, MALDEF, the nation's most important Latino civil rights group and one of three national Latino groups who oppose his nomination, said its ”specific concerns” included Gonzales' strong backing for the primacy of presidential power, and the potential conflict of interest deriving from Gonzales' past representation of Pres. Bush as White House counsel.
The group also objected to Gonzales' role in setting detention and interrogation policies for U.S. detainees and his perfunctory handling of death penalty appeals to Bush when he was Texas governor, and to indications that he supports delegating the enforcement of federal immigration laws to state and local law-enforcement authorities.
”We acknowledge that judge Gonzales is likely to be confirmed as the next attorney-general of the United States and the first Latino to hold this important post,” MALDEF said, adding that it ”stands ready to work with Judge Gonzales as he carries out his duties and continues his public service. However, because of our specific concerns, .MALDEF cannot support his confirmation.”
In its statement, HRF said the policies approved by Gonzales with respect to the treatment of detainees were inconsistent with Bush's own words in his second inaugural address last Thursday: ”From the day of our founding we have proclaimed every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value.”
”He approved a definition of torture so narrow that much of the barbarism depicted in the photos from Abu Ghraib (prison) would have been beyond the law to punish. He has contended that U.S. personnel are exempt from the ban on cruel and degrading practices that has been binding U.S. treaty law for more than a decade.
”And he has embraced the radical view that the President has the power to ignore laws passed by the nation's representatives in Congress,” the statement said. ”Such views are anathema to the rule of law, and contrary to the rights the United States has pledged to protect.”
HRF also expressed disappointment over Gonzales' answers to questions about these issues posed to him during his confirmation hearing which, according to the group, while denouncing ”torture” as a general principle, essentially reaffirmed the controversial views expressed in memoranda issued or approved by his office from 2002 through 2004 that have been strongly denounced by the American Bar Association and retired military lawyers and judges, as well as human rights groups.
HRW said it, too, was disappointed by Gonzales' responses in his testimony before the Committee. ”While we did not realistically expect Mr. Gonzales to repudiate the Bush administration's past positions.we hoped he would seize the chance to reassure the world that he would in the future uphold and enforce the laws that prohibit torture and ill-treatment.”
”Instead, in his answers to Senators' questions, he raised new doubts about whether he is committed to the rule of law, and whether he even understands the laws that govern the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners. We therefore believe Mr. Gonzales should not be confirmed to serve as attorney-general,” the group stated.
HRW expressed particular alarm Tuesday at Gonzales' claim in written responses to Senators' questions that the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, enshrined in the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT) that was ratified by the United States in 1994, does not apply to U.S. personnel in the treatment of non-citizens abroad.
Gonzales' interpretation, according to HRW, would permit the CIA to commit in secret detention facilities abroad many of the shocking forms of abuse that have been disclosed since the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke last April.
It noted that when the Senate consented to CAT's ratification 11 years ago, it included a reservation that defined ”cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” to mean those practices banned by the Fifth, Eight, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in order to clarify the kinds of conduct that would be banned.
In his answers, Gonzales contended that, because the Constitution does not apply to non-U.S. citizens outside the U.S., neither does the CAT's prohibition on ill-treatment. Such an interpretation would mean that U.S. officials would be free to engage in cruel and inhuman treatment short of torture without violating the CAT.
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