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U.S./EU: Row Over Guantanamo Detainees Creates Novel Perceptions In Europe

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The trans-Atlantic disagreement over the treatment of Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees in Cuba has led to an interesting role reversal. The United States, long seen as a champion of human rights, is now being chided by its allies and various international organizations for what are seen as shortcomings in the way it is handling the prisoners.

Prague, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many ordinary Europeans are confused by the controversy surrounding the way the United States has been dealing with the detainees in Cuba as part of its campaign against terrorism.

In general, Europeans are accustomed to regarding the United States as a guardian of human rights around the world. There have, of course, been past trans-Atlantic disagreements on rights issues, such as over the continued use of the death penalty in the United States. But this week's high-level expressions of concern from within the European Union are something of a novelty to many Europeans. Among the comments is a blunt request by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for an "explanation" from Washington over the publishing of photographs of some of the Guantanamo Bay detainees shackled and wearing surgical masks, blacked-out goggles, and ear coverings.

Mike Emerson, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, calls this a "clear and lucid" message from the "best friend and ally" of the United States that it should avoid such practices.

"The United States and Europe share fundamental political and moral values, and when one or the other starts straying off that track, then they get a sharp message."

Given the U.S. role as a "democratic tutor" in the postwar era in Europe, the novelty of the situation is that the message this time is traveling east to west, from the old world to the new.

Another senior political analyst, Paris-based Guillaume Parmentier, who heads the French Center on the United States, makes a similar point. Noting European calls for the detainees to be treated as official prisoners of war, and the U.S. resistance to this, he says: "In a sense it is a very strange reversal of roles, [because] traditionally the Americans are in favor of recourse to legal means of redress, on an international basis, and the Europeans -- to put it mildly -- were not. And now we have come around the circle."

Whether the present differences will inflict any damage on trans-Atlantic relations depends on how long the matter is allowed to go unresolved, Parmentier says. He calls for an honest trans-Atlantic debate, because "the distinction between what is international and what is domestic has become more tenuous than was the case before."

Referring to what is perceived as a recent American impulse to act alone, he ascribes this to historic factors, saying, "The Europeans have multilateralism built into them, the respect for form, because that's the European way to do things. If you want to do things in the European Union or among Europeans, you have got to do that, you have to subsume your national sovereignty. Whereas the Americans have a different way of doing it, they don't have to do that."

Another analyst, Alexander Smolar of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says the row over the detainees is only the latest of the rights-related disagreements between Europe and the United States. He adds that the September terrorist attacks on the United States have affected American views on unilateralism and international cooperation.

"There is now quite a large consciousness that even such an enormously strong, dominating state [as the United States] cannot feel entirely secure, so it must look for security, it must produce security for itself -- not only for others as it was in the past -- and it needs allies of different sorts."

Smolar says perceptions in Poland have also been drastically changed by the events of 11 September. He notes that following the attacks, the NATO allies for the first time invoked Article Five in the alliance charter, making an attack on one of them an attack on all -- a move to allow then to defend the United States. He says this produced a striking new perception.

"This is rather ironic, though purely symbolic, [that] Poland voted for using Article Five of the Washington agreement to help the United States in the [current] danger. This is a major paradox. Poles have always believed and hoped that the United States will save us, and here -- although purely symbolically -- we have been asked to save, to help the U.S."

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