Friday, August 08, 2008

china, u.s., human rights

The juxtaposition of the Beijing Olympics and the first in the new round of Guantanamo trials gives occasion to think about human rights and its place in the two societies. That the Olympics have raised questions about human rights in China will surprise no one who has spent time in the country. The cooperation of many western entities, who have agreed to implicit censorship on both external (e.g., Darfur) and internal issues as the price of coverage, is especially unsettling. Still, one suspects that the overall effect will be positive, attracting enhanced attention to these issues and encouraging those within China who are seeking a more open, humane society.

The Guantanamo story is more limited but arguably more depressing, given the rather higher expectations that obtain in an American context. The irony here is that the result--a 66 month sentence which, with credit for time served, would lead to release in less than six months--seems entirely reasonable or even lenient under the circumstances. Together with the acquittal on broader (conspiracy) charges, it suggests that the military personnel who sat on the panel took their jobs seriously and were largely fair-minded. But the precedent of a trial-but-not-really-a-trial remains a disturbing one. Equally disturbing is the suggestion that, once his sentence is over, the individual in question would not be released but would simply return to a different form of custody. This treatment, which is common in totalitarian states, is both legally and logically unnerving: if he is simply a prisoner, why is he being tried, and if a criminal, why should he not be released when his sentence is up?

I do not wish to overstate the parallel here, or to suggest that the Guantanamo trials are on the same scale as the violations of human rights in China or other countries. But there is no doubt such procedures damage our credibility in preaching the human rights gospel to other nations. This is of course not the only, or even the most important, factor to be considered: but it is not insignificant, either.


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