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Rumsfeld's actions speak louder

SECRETARY OF Defense Donald Rumsfeld's surprise trip to Baghdad is the latest step in the Bush administration's campaign to repair the damage done by the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In condemning these abuses, Rumsfeld has made it clear that they were "inconsistent with our values," contrary to "teachings of the military," and "un-American." But more significant is what Rumsfeld has failed to say and the pledges he hasn't made. Rumsfeld has insisted that US forces are not "torturing" people at Abu Ghraib or elsewhere. The physical and psychological mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners may be abusive, he said, but he would not discuss the legal technicalities of "the torture word." We in the human rights community have debated this point with Pentagon officials for 18 months, stepping up inquiries when The Washington Post quoted US military and intelligence officials bragging about "stress and duress" interrogation techniques in Afghanistan, and about having "taken the gloves off." But there is no technical judgment necessary in evaluating the latest cases in Iraq.

The crimes at Abu Ghraib violate the UN's Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. Both of these international agreements establish binding legal obligations that the United States voluntarily undertook decades ago. They reflect the universal moral consensus that certain conduct is abhorrent by any standard. The conduct by US authorities at Abu Ghraib plainly crossed that universally recognized line, and Rumsfeld should say so.

Rumsfeld's second failure is his fierce resistance to having legal norms constrain any of the US government's activities in its "war against terrorism." He and other administration officials pay lip service to the "rule of law." But in practice they are ready to observe legal safeguards only if they are consistent with their own chosen ends.

They are particularly allergic to traditional notions of separation of power and to judicial review of their decisions and actions. And so, for example, the administration has deemed all the people being held at Guantanamo Bay -- about 600 -- as "enemy combatants" and therefore ineligible for any kind of review, even to determine whether they are prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

Trust us, they say, we are doing what we must to protect you from terrorism. But don't constrain us with quaint traditions like law. There is law, and then there is war. In this new kind of war against terrorism, law has no particular place.

This is a radical doctrine, and the horrors at Abu Ghraib are an almost inevitable consequence.

The Pentagon's belated agreement to conduct a limited investigation into Abu Ghraib, and to put the offenders on trial and punish them, is an essential first step in repairing the damage done to the nation's reputation. But it is only a first step.

Rumsfeld should also immediately grant unconditional access to the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit everyone in US custody worldwide. He should make public information about who is being detained by the United States. He should publicly reveal the results of the investigations into the deaths of all detainees who have died in custody in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere. There are at least 26 confirmed cases of deaths in US custody. So far, the Pentagon has not made clear the circumstances of any of these.

To ensure that such abuses never happen again, Rumsfeld should also discontinue the use of private contractors in the interrogation process. The detention of alleged combatants is a highly sensitive assignment, and should be undertaken only by experienced, well-trained soldiers. The US government also should discontinue the practice of rendering or turning over security detainees to foreign governments in Egypt, Kuwait, and other countries that have a track record of abuse. Rumsfeld should further repeal interrogation guidelines promulgated in April 2003, which, acccording to The Washington Post, allow interrogators to take off prisoners' clothes during interrogations and to use sleep deprivation and other sensory abuses to coax detainees to talk. All these measures violate US and international laws. The commanding general in Iraq banned sensory abuses Thursday. The ban should extend to all US forces.

In his testimony last week, Rumsfeld declared: "We value human life. We believe in individual freedom and in the rule of law." Thus far, the secretary's actions fall short of fulfilling those lofty beliefs. But America's standing in the world to advance all of the goals this administration says it seeks -- especially the universal acceptance of democracy and the rule of law -- will be inadequate to the task until Rumsfeld's actions speak louder than his words.

Kerry Kennedy Cuomo is founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and author of "Speak Truth to Power." Michael Posner is executive director of Human Rights First. Rights. 

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