The lawless sheriff [Archives:2004/752/Opinion]

July 5 2004

By Joseph E. Stiglitz*
I usually limit myself in my newspaper commentaries to my area of expertise, economics. But as an American, I am so horrified by what has happened in my country – and what my country has done to others over the past two years – that I feel I must speak out.
I believe American abuses of human rights and the canons of civilized peoples that have come to light in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, and the more horrendous abuses that almost surely will come to light later, are not merely the act of aberrant individuals. They are the result of a Bush administration that has trampled on human rights and international law, including the Geneva conventions, and tried to undermine basic democratic protections, ever since it took office.
Sadly, torture and other atrocities do happen in war – and the Iraq war is certainly not the only time torture has been used – but I believe that the Bush administration is responsible for creating a climate in which international law and democratic processes have been disregarded. When Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the last World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he was asked how the administration could justify what was taking place in Guatanamo Bay, where prisoners are being kept without being charged and without counsel. Cheney's answer was jarring: he said that because the detainees were captured in Afghanistan where they had been trying to kill US troops, the rules regarding prisoners of war did not apply.
Many in the audience were shocked by his remarks, but Cheney seemingly failed to grasp how appalled his audience was. They were not concerned with legalisms, about whether, technically, the Geneva conventions did or did not apply. They were concerned about basic canons of human rights. Among the most appalled were those who had recently struggled to achieve democracy, and were continuing to fight for human rights.
The Bush administration has also trampled on citizens' basic right to know what their government is doing, refusing, for example, to disclose who was on the task force that shaped its energy policy – though one really doesn't need that information to see that it was shaped by the oil industry and for the oil industry.
When abuses occur in one area, they can quickly spread to others. For weeks the Bush administration kept the report on abuses in Iraqi prisons from the American people by pressuring CBS not to air the photographs in its possession. Similarly, it was only through the use of the Freedom of Information Act that the dramatic photographs of the coffins of US soldiers coming home were finally made public.
The American media have not emerged unscathed. Why did CBS refuse to release information of vital concern to the public? The abuses should have been covered months ago. Amnesty International held a press conference on the topic in Baghdad in July 2003. And while the pictures and the story of Abu Ghraib ran on front pages in Europe and elsewhere, it was at first buried in many American newspapers, including leaders like The New York Times. Were they worried about offending the Bush administration?
Defenders of President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the military emphasize the difficulty of the task they face in Iraq, human frailty and fallibility, and the fact that there are always a few “rotten apples.” America's system of government, however, recognizes all of this, and attempts to guard against it. Had the letter and spirit of these safeguards been followed, we would not have been in this war at all, or at least not alone.
Yes, it is conceivable that Bush did not have accurate information about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But under the international rules that America is supposed to follow, wars should not be undertaken based on the judgment of one individual and his cabal. The judgment of the world was that the evidence was not there – and the world was right. Had Bush only gone along with the democratic processes enshrined in the UN Charter, the trauma of Iraq need not have occurred.
We know that individuals and institutions make mistakes. Such mistakes are all the more likely in times of stress. We have to put in place rules and procedures, safeguards, a system of due process, to make it more likely that justice is done; and in times of stress it is all the more important that we respect these safeguards. It is clear that the checks needed to prevent abuse in the Iraqi and Afghan prisons were not in place, and that the Bush Administration had created a climate that made such abuses more likely, if not inevitable.
More fundamentally, something has gone wrong with the system of checks and balances in America's democracy. Congress and the press should have checked the president. The international community tried. Unfortunately, the global system of international law and governance remains too weak to prevent the determined misbehavior of the president of the world's most powerful country if he is hell bent on starting a war on his own.
It is at moments such as these that we realize how thin a veneer our civilization may be. As statements of shared values and principles, the UN Charter, the Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva conventions are great achievements. Whether they have the force of law is not the point; they provide guidance for civilized behavior. Each of them was motivated by the horrific lessons of the past. Let us hope that, emerging out of today's scandals, there will be a renewed commitment to live up to these ideals and to strengthen the institutions that were designed to enforce them.
* Joseph E. Stiglitz is Professor of Economics at Columbia University and a member of the Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalization. He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, June 2004.