As Americans, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that foreign leaders who violate the human rights and the civil liberties of their citizens face justice. Historically we have portrayed ourselves as an international defender of individual liberty, and for good reason. We carried our systems of accountability successfully into the courtrooms of Nuremberg, Chile and into the deserts of Africa. During the past decade, however, Americans have been left wondering whether we hold our own leaders and policymakers to the same stringent standards of justice and public accountability.
Do we, as American citizens, demand that our own leaders face justice when they violate the human rights of civilians?
In the 1980's and 90's, human rights groups responded to abuses in Latin America by exposing and chasing after the governments of Peru, Chile and Argentina around every tree they tried to hide behind. Disappearances and torture were the issues, and the world watched in horror as over 69,000 died in the conflict in Peru, as Chilean men and women were tortured and disappeared, and as Argentinean university professors, labor unions and liberals were wiped out systematically.
Driven largely by the power of grassroots activists, democracy eventually returned to these three countries and brought about a fairly reliable peace. Although each country came to grips with human rights violations in its own way, there is no doubt that those responsible for human rights violations were held publicly accountable. Pinochet was pursued by law enforcement until he died, Fujimori is now locked in prison, and Argentinean generals are in and out of jail or otherwise facing serious legal ramifications for their actions.
However, for the victims of those tortured and for the families of those murdered in the course of the United States pursuit of its war on terror, the scars of human rights abuse remain. It is these people, these victims and families, who must be wondering if the letters 'U.S.A.' will ever appear on the State Department's list of countries that torture. They must be wondering if the State Department will investigate the cases of those who were captured and tortured in American-run prisons set up in countries like Poland and Lithuania. They must be wondering why American citizens have not followed the example of the Chileans, Peruvians and Argentineans by demanding accountability of our own leaders for the human rights violations of the last decade.
The men tortured in Abu Ghraib deserve to have answers to the questions they must have asked themselves over and over while in US custody: Why am I being tortured? Who authorized the interrogation methods and for what reasons? What is the goal of my interrogators--to punish me or to extract information? These men have the right to understand the answers to these questions. American citizens have the right to confront those individuals in our government who authorize the use of torture and the use of military drone strikes. American colleges and universities are filled with young people with a desire to do good for the world. But where are the college student protests on Capitol Hill about the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques? Where are the young men and women who see what is going on in their own country and have the courage to speak up about it? Where are those idealistic students who will demand the public accountability of their own leaders? The journey to end human rights abuse, unfortunately, starts right here in America.
This struggle to find accountability in our own country clearly cannot be a partisan political struggle. Although the latest Bush administration has become emblematic of American abuse of military force, one needs only to look at Clinton's failure to join the International Criminal Court in order to understand how the stage was set for companies like Blackwater and events like those that transpired at Abu Ghraib. One needs only to see that military drone strikes have resulted in the deaths of scores of innocent people in order to understand that the victims are simply a new form of the 'disappeared.' It is up to each one of us to search for a meaningful way to hold our leaders accountable.
If we want to move forward as a country and if we want to bring peace to the victims of torture and the families of victims killed in drone strikes, then we must have accountability. Our government routinely sends messages promoting human rights to countries all over the globe. We demand accountability, action and justice for foreign leaders who violate international standards of human rights. Yet if we truly want change in this world, we must start at home with our own government. We must first face and accept what this country has done, before we can finally become free of the struggles of the last decade and move beyond our own failure to protect the basic human rights of all citizens of the world.