The U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report was released last Friday. As usual, it chastised China for human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and media restrictions. Also as usual, China responded by lambasting America’s infringement upon other nations’ sovereignty, and suggested that the U.S. should “reflect on their own human rights issues.”
I really, really hate to agree with China on the topic of human rights. The U.S. State Department is right, of course, in noting the Chinese government’s widespread lack of transparency, its penchant for media control, and the alarmingly high percentage of Chinese dissident activists that go missing. But China’s guilt does not prove America’s innocence in terms of human rights. One person in particular proves this point: Bradley Manning.
The name might sound familiar. Manning was the intelligence analyst who allegedly transferred hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. While WikiLeaks has fallen from the headlines, Manning has remained in a maximum-security isolation cell at the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia for the past nine months, locked in his cell for 23 hours a day (he gets to walk around another empty room during the remaining hour).
I won’t comment here about the criminality of his act, though that, too, is a subject of controversy. What concerns me more is the manner in which Manning is being treated, both in terms of the legal avenues closed to him and his actual treatment in a military brig. Despite the prison psychiatrist’s recommendation that he be removed, Manning remains in Prevention of Injury (POI) detention, reserved for prisoners at risk for suicide or self-inflicted injury. This status allows the military, under the guise of keeping Manning from injuring himself, to ask him the question “Are you okay?” every five minutes during the day and any time his face is turned away from the door at night, and physically intervening if Manning does not verbally reply in the affirmative. Manning must also sleep naked and wear a “smock” instead of clothes, conditions which are again justified by the arbitrarily-imposed POI status. Such continuously humiliating treatment would be inexcusable even for someone convicted of Manning’s alleged crime, but Manning has not yet faced trial in a military court.
In his first public comments on the matter, President Obama said that the Pentagon had assured him that Manning’s conditions were “appropriate and meeting our basic standards.” In effect, the President declared that he trusted the U.S. federal department, which had been accused of abuse, even in the absence of any external investigation into the allegations. I can only imagine how the 2007 Obama would have responded to the 2011 Obama’s remark. Any reasonably thoughtful citizen, let alone a lawyer with as much legal acumen as Obama, knows better than to view the testimony of the defendant—the Pentagon—as fact. In any case, it was Obama who railed against the lack of oversight and abuses in self-policing of the banking and oil drilling industries. Given his past rhetoric, Obama’s blind faith in the word of the military to judge for itself the treatment of its own prisoner oozes with insincerity.
This month, a letter written by Professors Bruce Ackerman and Yochai Benkler of Yale and Harvard Law School, respectively, was released to the public. The letter, signed by over 250 legal scholars, activists, and other public figures, criticizes the treatment of Manning and the Obama administration’s complicity in its perpetuation. The authors claim that Manning’s condition is a violation of both the 5th and 8th Amendments, which guarantee a speedy trial and forbid cruel and unusual punishment, and that the treatment is well on its way to being classifiable as torture.
Whether or not Manning’s alleged actions were moral or legal, his current treatment is neither. It is stories like these that make me take the U.S. State Department’s memos on human rights abuses around the globe with a grain of salt. I’m certainly not equating the political, economic, and social liberties here with those in China, Russia, Zimbabwe, and other authoritarian or clearly corrupt governments around the world. The fact that U.S. news outlets can report this story, criticize the officials involved, and spark protests speaks volumes about the relative freedom of the American public. However, the U.S. government has shown itself willing to sacrifice the freedom and transparency associated with liberal democracy—ideals which have helped justify America's wars, national security strategies and foreign policies—whenever it deems the benefits of scaring away future whistleblowers or punishing intelligence breaches more valuable than the political risks of the tactics employed. This willingness, whatever the politicians and military brass may say, makes American actions different from Chinese injustice not in nature but in degree alone.