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Shameless Politics
The Politicization of Human Rights

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 7, 2005 --  

Amnesty International's description of America's Guantanamo Bay prison as "the Gulag of our times" has unleashed a firestorm of condemnation by allies of the Bush Administration. After a period of relative quiet following the declaration by Amnesty Secretary General Irene Khan, the relentless fireworks began.

"It's absurd," said President Bush.1 "Frankly, I was offended by it," said Vice President Cheney.2 It was "absolutely irresponsible" said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers.3 And the words of allies outside the administration were far less polite. For the past week, pro-Bush pundits and newspapers have been charging Amnesty International with terrorist sympathies and an anti-Bush partisan bias.

Unfortunately for Amnesty, the latter charge was easy to prove. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, the unusually combative host, Chris Wallace, got Amnesty USA Executive Director William Shultz to admit on camera to donating thousands of dollars to Democrats John Kerry and Ted Kennedy.

"I have contributed, yes," said Shultz. "And my personal political views have nothing to do with Amnesty's position."4

Whoops. There goes the credibility of the worlds' greatest non-partisan human rights organization.

The political melee over Amnesty has all the makings of a White House orchestrated campaign. And it has been executed masterfully. Most Americans will now dismiss Amnesty International as at best a group of leftists, and at worst a group of terrorist sympathizers. Whatever its moral power in the rest of the world, its voice in America is as good as silenced.

This is a shame, because Amnesty was absolutely right to call Guantanamo "the Gulag of our time." Like any proper political insult, the comment was designed to evoke shame by noting similarities between a policy position and a universally-derided event from history.

While much smaller than the Soviet Gulag, America's terror war prison system -- of which Guantanamo is only a part -- has many similarities. It is detaining people for years without legal recourse simply because the executive authority arbitrarily declares them enemies of the state ("enemy combatant" in contemporary terms.) The system unconstitutionally holds domestic and foreign nationals alike, and has used internationally-recognized forms of torture against detainees, even if America's means of torture have been milder than the Soviets' means.

Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should be ashamed of this record. In attacking Amnesty, Vice President Cheney noted that "the United States has done more to advance the cause of freedom, has liberated more people from tyranny over the course of the 20th Century and up to the previous day than any other nation in the world."5 Exactly so. And this great record is precisely why America's modern Gulag is so shameful.

Bush administration lackeys across the country have been condemning Amnesty's critique on the grounds that America behaves far better than its adversaries. Well, of course America behaves better. If you want to wear the white hat, you're supposed to be held to a higher standard. Amnesty knows full well that it has no power to shame violent terrorists with talk of human rights. If America wants to continue to be the beacon of freedom in the world, as it has for over two centuries, it must not sacrifice human rights in order to make its job easier.

However right Amnesty International is on the facts, it has failed on politics. It has allowed itself to become part of America's partisan debate, allied with Democrats against Republicans. This is terribly unfortunate, because human rights should not be a Democratic issue, but part of the cause of freedom. President Ronald Reagan, the modern hero of Republicans, relentlessly lectured Soviet leaders on the human rights of people behind the Iron Curtain, an effort that has earned America the loyalty of Central Europeans to this day. If Republicans cede human rights to the Democrats, they will be abandoning a key part of the Reagan legacy.

As a donor to Democratic Party, Amnesty's American director should be fired and replaced with an executive pledged to abstain from partisan politics. Only after an extended period of healing can the organization's influence return for rank-and-file Republicans. In the meantime, the best hope for the cause of human rights in America is for Republican tempers to cool, allowing a proper sense of shame over human rights violations in Guantanamo to fill the void.

David G. Young is a former member of both Amnesty International and the Republican Party.

Related Web Columns:

The Unreproachable Gulag, October 12, 2004

Silencing the Anti-American Left, July 6, 2004

Losing the War on Terror, June 11, 2002

Shameful Comparisons, November 26, 2001


1. Global Information Network, Rights-U.S.: Bush and Cheney Assail Amnesty on 'Gulag' Charge, May 31, 2005

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Fox News Sunday, Transcript: Amnesty Int'l USA's William Schulz, June 6, 2005.

5. Global Information Network, Ibid.