How Human Rights Watch plans to rescue US imperialism

HRW is demanding that Bush be tried for war crimes only because it wants to resuscitate US authority over the uncivilised hordes.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Admittedly, it must be a right royal pain in the ass for a group like New York-based Human Rights Watch. It wants to lecture the world’s less-than-liberal nations. It wants to preach from on high about human-rights abuses in low-down and often dark-skinned places. And it so desperately wants to bask in the warm, morally superior glow that comes from telling bad people off. Yet, right there, in its mother country, the United States of America, there is the fly in the oily sanctimony – that is, the all too recent memory of the debacle that was (and is) the ‘war on terror’.

It’s a significant problem for those in the West who want to lecture the natives elsewhere. That is because all illusions of the West’s moral superiority, built up so assiduously during former President Bill Clinton’s ‘good wars’ during the mid- to late 1990s, from Bosnia in 1995 to Kosovo in 1999, came to ruin during the ‘war on terror’. And nowhere more so than in Iraq.

As America headed over there in 2003, with Britain in tow but a UN legal sanction nowhere to be seen, it soon became clear that Saddam Hussein was not quite the Weaponised threat of Mass Destruction he had been trumped up to be. Worse still, far from being hailed as liberators of the oppressed, the coalition allies were damned (and attacked) as their enemies. And, if that wasn’t chastening enough, what has really stuck in the craw of the soft-touch missionaries in organisations like Human Rights Watch is that the US, aided and abetted by its allies, did some pretty horrible things to the prisoners of the ‘war on terror’ at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Yesterday, however, Human Rights Watch (HRW) sought to do what many in the official antiwar camp have tried to do umpteen times. It tried legalistically to right a political, moral wrong. So, in its new report, Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees, HRW argued that many of those who drove the ‘war on terror’ ought now to be tried for war crimes. The charge list looks something like this: ex-president George W Bush approved the waterboarding of detainees plus a spot of airborne torture; former vice president Dick Cheney established illegal detention and some rather unsanitary interrogation techniques; former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was almost hands-on in his involvement in specific interrogations; and ex-CIA director George Tenet oversaw and authorised the whole gamut of the torture and interrogation menu.

HRW admits that the broad strokes of the allegations are nothing new. But it hopes that recent documentary evidence, from the recent release of classified papers to admissions by Bush and others in books, will have provided enough dirt for a prosecution case. ‘There is enough strong evidence from the information made public over the past five years’, its report asserted, ‘to not only suggest these officials authorised and oversaw widespread and serious violations of US and international law, but that they failed to act to stop mistreatment, or punish those responsible after they became aware of serious abuses’.

No doubt those at HRW are sincere in their pursuit of Bush and his band of neo-cronies. No doubt they think they are doing it for the right reasons (because Bush is Bad). But that’s the problem: the road to The Hague is paved with good intentions.

Take the words of a newspaper editorial on HRW’s new report: ‘Only by confronting the past can nations construct a better future.’ This is how the calls for George, Dick and Don to be prosecuted are understood. It is an opportunity to reckon with the nightmare that was the ‘war on terror’, an opportunity to draw a line under a series of torture-laden military actions that have undermined Western self-confidence. A trial, or even just the ever-repeated threat of a trial, is a chance to cleanse, then, a chance to rehabilitate the US. Hence HRW argues that investigations and prosecutions are necessary ‘if the US hopes to wipe away the stain of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and reaffirm the primacy of the rule of law’. Atonement here mingles with the promise of a global redemption: America can lead the world again!

This is the actual consequence of such attempts to restore the US-led West to its former, pre-Iraq glory, by heaping all the wrongdoing, all the failure, on the Bush administration. It serves to rearm, in moral terms, Western imperialism. Because, let there be no doubt, HRW is all for America getting stuck into other people’s affairs: ‘The US is right to call for justice when serious international crimes are committed in places like Darfur, Libya, and Sri Lanka’, says HRW’s Kenneth Roth. The only problem, as he sees it, is ‘when the US government shields its own officials from investigation and prosecution, it makes it easier for others to dismiss global efforts to bring [perpetrators] of serious crimes to justice’.

That a group like HRW seems intent on morally re-arming the West shouldn’t be a surprise. Its criticism of the ‘war on terror’ is not political, it is legalistic. If the US military hadn’t tortured inmates at Abu Ghraib, if CIA operatives hadn’t waterboarded detainees at Guantánamo, then it is doubtful whether HRW would have had much to criticise the US-sponsored ‘war on terror’ for. It seems it is good to wage wars, just so long as you stick to the rules.

It is little wonder that HRW seems to have such a legalistic attitude towards warmongering given the centrality of the idea of ‘war crime’ to its thinking. As Mick Hume has pointed out on spiked recently, the origins of the idea lie in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the West was seeking morally to distinguish its bloody actions from those of the evil, Nazi-phile vanquished. Yes, the British firebombed Dresden; yes, the US obliterated Hiroshima – but what the Nazis did was… well… it just wasn’t cricket. Since then, the idea of the war crime has passed virtually unquestioned into contemporary political discourse. But the idea that there is a good, rule-abiding way to wage a war and a bad rule-breaking mode of conduct definitely does need questioning. Wars by their very nature stand outside rules and law. They are fights for power, struggles for survival; they are not polite games played between fellow citizens. War exists in the absence of law, not in spite of it.

The sad result of such international law-spouting idiocy, rich in war-crime rhetoric, is that it has hobbled any actual political criticism of the ‘war on terror’. Even worse, it threatens to help justify future, ‘law-abiding’ interventions. So the US or the UK or France or whichever government is off scouting for moral purpose can wage war, can destabilise and render impotent a whole people, and can even torture combatants within limits, because they do so in the right way, the legal way. For such legalistic cretins, bewitched by their own sense of superiority, it seems might really can be right.

Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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