The Amnesty report elicited an equally harsh reaction from Bush backers and supporters of U.S. policy, who said the rights organization had gone too far and was pushing an anti-American agenda. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke to Widney Brown, Amnesty International's senior director for policy, about the controversy.
RFE/RL: Critics of this year's Amnesty report accuse your organization of focusing on the United States and its allies to a far greater degree than other countries, and they see a leftist bias. How do you answer that charge?
Widney Brown: I think you have to look at the role the United States itself claims in the world. And it claims very much a preeminent role. It claims to be the leader and defender of both democracy and human rights. It claims the right to declare, for instance, a global war against terror. And if you're going to make those claims, then you're going to put yourself forward for a lot of scrutiny.
RFE/RL: Does that mean you don't measure all countries equally? Do you hold the United States to a different standard than say Zimbabwe because you have certain expectations?
Brown: The United States has been scrutinized by us and criticized by us -- although its practices are not the equivalent of Zimbabwe's -- at the level that we're doing it because it holds itself up [as an example.] I think if you look at our standards across the board, we're critical of any government for any human rights violations, and we name the violations across the board. What we're taking on is the United States' claim to moral authority based on -- in its words -- being a leader in human rights.
RFE/RL: Are you saying the United States should not claim a leadership role on human rights in the world? Would it be better -- in your view -- for Washington to remain isolationist, to just mind its own business at home and then it wouldn't get the extra scrutiny?
Brown: We would love to see the United States take a leadership role on human rights and have its actions reflect that commitment. Our concern is that its actions not only do not reflect its rhetorical commitment to human rights but are actually undermining human rights standards on issues that in many ways we had hoped were issues of the past -- for instance, the issue of torture or disappearances. Nothing is about saying what role the United States should play globally -- this is not about being isolationist at all. We want all governments to be engaged and proactive in the world. This is not at all about isolation versus involvement. It's about the nature of the involvement.
RFE/RL: Do you approve of the United States' involvement in the Darfur issue? President George W. Bush has just announced new sanctions against the Sudanese government. Surely that's praiseworthy?
Brown: That's a really good example of why it's so frustrating sometimes to analyze the United States. The United States has been a government that almost from the beginning has been very critical -- rightly so -- of what's going on in Darfur. And we're very happy to hear the United States take that specific position, because what is happening in Darfur is horrific, and the fact that the international community has not been able to successfully intervene to stop the killings, the displacements, the sexual violence three years into this, is itself symptomatic of a problem that we have globally on human rights and humanitarian law intervention.
So we're very glad to see the United States take what we see as a positive position on Darfur.
What's frustrating is that if you look at a lot of the rhetoric, and particularly from President [Omar al-]Bashir of Sudan, he uses the fact that the Bush administration is seen as very hypocritical on this issue to duck the impact of the U.S. criticism.
RFE/RL: You've been extremely critical of the U.S.-led war on terror. Are you saying the terror threat doesn't really exist?
Brown: This is not to say that the threat of terrorism globally is not real. We're acutely aware of that. I'm from New York. I lived through [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States]. We're not saying that those fears are not real, and we're not saying that the challenges don't exist. They absolutely exist. But human rights are based on the rule of law. And the rule of law is about reason and fairness and is the antithesis of fear and terror. When you take away access to the law and you undermine the rule of law through the use of torture and disappearances, renditions and prolonged arbitrary detentions with little or no recourse to the courts, you are enacting a system of fear and terror.
RFE/RL: Any final thoughts to those who accuse you of hyperbole and anti-Americanism?
Brown: You can go back 100 years to the threat of the anarchists in the early 1900s and then, of course, World War II and the 'Red Scare' [a Congressionally led effort in the 1950s to expose purported communists in the United States], the antiwar movement [during the Vietnam War era], the civil-rights movement, and now, of course, the war on terror. And what [the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William] Brennan said is that after every episode we look back at our overreaction in which we deprived people of rights and realize that [such measures] were unnecessary.
And I do think that the U.S. has a history -- and this is not unique to the U.S. -- that when there is a threat, and again we're not saying the threat is not real, there is an overreaction that ends up snaring many, many people who are innocent into these violations by the state. Obviously, the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II is a more recent example. The United States has that history, and what we would like to see the United States do is rather than in the middle of a threat go on automatic to the most severe reactions, to really try to learn from history. And it hasn't.