The Uproar Over Calling Gitmo a "Gulag"

Over the past three weeks I’ve had more than one occasion to reflect on the power of symbols. Whether you agree withthat our analogy was “reprehensible” or withthat it was an “apt metaphor,” the use of that one word “gulag” had a remarkable impact on the public debate. Amnesty International got more media time to discuss U.S. detention policies in the past three weeks than we have in the past three years.
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It’s been a wild three weeks for Amnesty International and me, what with our international Secretary General, Irene Khan, having called Guantanamo Bay the “gulag of our times,” prompting President Bush to pronounce our report on human rights abuses there “absurd” and four other top government officials to join in the free-for-all.

We’ve taken a lot of heat for what we repeatedly said was intended as a symbolic, not literal, analogy. As one of the premier critics of the Soviet prison system, Amnesty International understands the difference in magnitude between forcing millions into labor camps where tens of thousands starved, and illegally imprisoning and sometimes abusing prisoners in US detention. We both acknowledged that difference and went on to point out the similarities as well, i.e., that the US is maintaining an archipelago of prisons, many of them secret, into which people are disappearing without access to lawyers, courts or families and in which more than a few of them are being tortured and even killed.

Over the past three weeks I’ve had more than one occasion to reflect on the power of symbols. Whether you agree with Secretary Rumsfeld that our analogy was “reprehensible” or with the New York Times that it was an “apt metaphor,” the use of that one word “gulag” had a remarkable impact on the public debate. Amnesty got more media time to discuss US detention policies in the past three weeks than we have in the past three years.

In recent days former President Carter, Senators Biden and Martinez, the New York Times and many others have called for Guantanamo to be shut down. Senator Specter has agreed to hold hearings on Guantanamo and Senator Biden and Congressman Waxman intend to introduce legislation to establish independent commissions to review mistreatment of detainees well beyond the prison in Cuba. Perhaps all of that would have happened no matter what Amnesty had said or done but at the very least the controversy we inadvertently touched off helped refocus policymakers on how damaging US conduct has been to our image around the world. For, after all, Amnesty truly is an international organization with members in more than 100 countries and, whether we in the US think it an appropriate historic reference or not, “gulag” truly is how much of the rest of the world perceives US detention practices.

I doubt if this brouhaha will ultimately do much damage to Amnesty International. We’ve had heads of governments call us a lot worse things than “absurd.” (Charles Taylor of Liberia once even threatened to have me assassinated.) But if this controversy ultimately moves us even one step closer to improvement in America’s human rights practices, the slings and arrows will have been more than worth it.

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