Not surprisingly, supporters of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy agenda have taken issue with the criticism. They say Amnesty has a political agenda of its own that the report lays bare. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Joshua Muravchik, who advises the U.S. State Department on democracy promotion and is a policy scholar at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, for his reaction to the report.
RFE/RL: Amnesty International says the United States is treating the world like a giant battlefield, and that its “war on terror” is eroding human rights across the world. Do you agree?
Joshua Muravchik: I do agree that it’s treating the world like a giant battlefield, as it must. It’s a global struggle, just as the Cold War was a global struggle. But the efforts that the United States is undertaking globally to combat terrorism are an advancement of human rights, not a threat to human rights.
RFE/RL: Can you give me an example?
Muravchik: Yes, the terrorists themselves are the most vicious people in the world. They’re putting in jeopardy the rights of innocent civilians all over the world, and by fighting them we are protecting the rights of people everywhere.
"Anyone with a proper moral sense will see that the abuses that the United States may be guilty of in the current situation are miniscule compared to the evils that it is trying to protect the world against."
RFE/RL: Amnesty points to the CIA renditions program, which takes terror suspects to countries abroad for interrogation, as a way that the United States has led other countries to condone, or at least ignore, torture. What’s your opinion of the rendition program?
Muravchik: It’s debatable.
What’s wrong with the Amnesty report is that we’re in a very vicious war. In that situation, there are difficult choices to be made about how to proceed and what tactics to use or to refrain from using, and it is debatable whether we should engage in renditions or not. But these are marginal issues and when Amnesty turns that into a whole-scale attack against the United States, it is itself lining up with the human rights violators against the human rights defenders.
RFE/RL: The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights, which looks at abuses by countries worldwide, is now called “hypocritical” by some of the worst offenders. This year, China -- one of the world’s most oppressive governments -- told the United States to take care of its own human rights record before criticizing others. Does the United States bear a moral responsibility to reject practices like torture and indefinite detentions without charge, to be a real leader on human rights?
Muravchik: Well, the United States is a leader on human rights. The United States is a country that gave the world human rights. It is the first country in the world that was premised on the idea that the citizens posses rights that exist prior to the existence of a government. And also, in the last century, the United States used its military might to protect human rights in the world from the most monstrous enemies: first Nazism, and then communists.
Members of Amnesty International in Budapest, Hungary protesting the Guantanamo Bay detention center (AFP)
And by force of arms, protecting human rights against monstrous enemies, you inevitably find yourself doing some harsh or questionable things. The essence of all political and moral wisdom is to see things in their proper proportion, how big and how small they are. And anyone with a proper moral sense will see that the abuses that the United States may be guilty of in the current situation are miniscule compared to the evils that it is trying to protect the world against.
And I think that Amnesty is morally obtuse in minimizing the horrific behavior of the people we’re fighting against. And inflating the abuses that we commit.
RFE/RL: But the report does condemn armed groups who terrorize civilians and use brutality to advance their agendas, and cites groups like Al-Qaeda and other Islamist insurgents.
Muravchik: This quote that I have here from the Associated Press says, “The U.S. administration’s doublespeak has been breathtakingly shameless.”
This is rhetoric that is so over the top that it shows that these people are not really concerned with human rights, they’re people who have a political axe to grind on her own, of anti-Americanism. And this woman, [Amnesty International Secretary-General] Irene Khan, has done this before. There was a scandal and they had to back down a couple of years ago, they referred to the “American gulag” or something like that. [On May 25, 2005, Khan said, “Guantanamo [Bay] has become the gulag our times.”]
What it shows is that these people aren’t really interested in human rights, that they have another ideological agenda, which is to damage the United States in the interest of their own ideology, and they’re using human rights - or the pose of human rights -- as a club. But no one who was seriously concerned about human rights would speak this way.
RFE/RL: You’re not worried that the international community and governments who read this report will see it as a black mark against the United States, instead of how you do -- as a political document with an agenda?
Muravchik: Well it does double damage. I mean, it does, sure it does harm to America and it also does harm to the cause of human rights, to have it perverted in this way.
RFE/RL: Are there any aspects of the “global war on terror” or U.S. foreign policy that you think could be handled better, or differently?
Muravchik: I’m sure it could be done a little bit different. But I would have to be in the position they’re [U.S. government officials] in, to figure out what might be done a little different.
A victim of an explosion in Baghdad (AFP)
Obviously the war in Iraq could have been done a lot different. Or else it shouldn’t have been done. It’s a mess. So the issue isn’t whether everything they’ve done has been the right thing to do, the issue is, what were the greatest triumphs of human rights in the history of the world?
RFE/RL: Well, there’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding of the UN…
Muravchik: No, no, no, those are utterly petty! The greatest triumphs of human rights in the history of the world were the defeat of Nazism in 1945 and the defeat of Soviet communism. Those made a difference of a million points, whereas the passage of some convention made a difference of two points.
And those were done in wars. And those were wars fought by the United States with allies. And in the course of those wars, we did lots of regrettable things. Some of them -- I mean, the one thing that we did that was really shameful was interning Japanese citizens in World War II. But aside from that, the other things we did -- well, I don’t know, they’re debatable things. Firebombing of cities. And in the Cold War, we allied with some pretty unsavory governments against the communists.
But what was the greatest victory for human rights in American history? Clearly it was the victory of the North in the Civil War, which ended slavery. And we did terrible things -- you know [General William] Sherman conducted a scorched-earth policy, President [Abraham] Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, but things like that happen in wars.
Each of these wars was a world-shaking victory for human rights. And so it’s one thing to argue from the point of view of someone who wants to win the war we’re in now, which is a war against a terrible, evil, antihuman force -- maybe we shouldn’t have Guantanamo [Bay], maybe we shouldn’t do renditions, I don’t know. You could convince me.
But it’s all petty, unimportant stuff and I think that these people at Amnesty, as I said, are morally obtuse. Their goal is to defame the United States.
RFE/RL: Do you think the global “war on terror” will end in a “world-shaking victory for human rights”?