Hard to judge [Archives:2004/740/Front Page]

May 24 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Last week the US State Department issued its annual report on human rights focusing on different countries around the world. But the report may have been released at a bad time.
The abuses committed by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that were revealed early this month have raised questions as to whether the United States can be critical of other countries' human rights record.
“The United States has no right to accuse other countries of anything,” said a Yemeni businessman. “After what it has done in Iraq, it no longer stands for freedom, democracy, justice or anything.”
Although the report has positive remarks on some human-rights issues in Yemen, it cites a number of human rights violations. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, poor prison conditions, harassment and intimidation of journalists, violence and discrimination against women, discrimination against religious or ethnic minorities and child labor were mentioned as human rights problems in Yemen.
When talking to the press last week, Lorne Craner, a US State Department official overseeing human rights, said that he wondered whether “Abu Ghraib robs us of our ability to talk about human rights abroad.” He added, however, that there are people in other countries that want the United States to push for their rights, even though they know that the US human rights record is flawed.
“People understand we're not perfect. If they thought we were perfect, they would have given up on us after things like My Lai and Watergate and Iran-Contra,” said Craner, referring to scandals that took place from the sixties through the eighties.
But worldwide anger over abuses in Iraq may damage the United States' credibility as a strong advocate of human rights, and some are worried that countries with human rights in question may use the violations committed by the United States as a tool to delay changes in the near future.
“Unfortunately, no one in the Arab world will now listen to what America has to say when it comes to human rights issues,” John R. Bradley, former Managing Editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News and author of the forthcoming book Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and the Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom, said to Yemen Times.
“The Abu Ghraib scandal has given easy ammunition to every anti-American politician and pundit in the Middle East.”
The United States also faces opposition concerning prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay. Even though the US government claims that the prisoners are war criminals, many argue that those being detained should be given the right to due process.
Last month, Amnesty International held a conference in Sana'a which focused on bringing together the lawyers and families of Guantanamo Bay detainees and called on the United States to release the prisoners or put them on trial.
Terry Waite, who once negotiated to free hostages but was kidnapped and held for almost five years by a terrorist organization in Lebanon, attended the conference. He said that he believes that the United States holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without legal procedures has set an example that other countries involved in the war on terror can follow.
Waite said that “because America has taken to detention without due process and trial, other nations are using this as an excuse. They can say, 'We can do it because Americans do it.' America doesn't have a moral leg to stand on.”
The report cites human-rights violations in a number of countries that have joined the United States to fight terrorism, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
On the agenda for discussion at the Arab Summit which began on May 22 was democratic reform, human rights, the rights of women and the role of civil society. The US Greater Middle East Initiative that urges Arab nations to carry out political reform was not to be included in the talks at the meeting of Arab leaders or representatives.