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Battle for civilised standards


While the September 11 attack on the United States was horrifying, America's treatment of Afghan prisoners has become controversial. Support for a tough response to terrorism, however, is firmly grounded in the recognition that it is consistent with the standards that are the hallmark of a civilised society.

A U.S. guard tower on the Cuban side of the Guantanamo base.

RESPONSIBLE people will have been — and will still be — appalled at the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11. The need to react toughly against those who were harbouring terrorists, as well as against the terrorists themselves, was widely understood.

Civilised society breaks down if citizens cannot go about their daily business free from fear of unprovoked attack.

Support for a tough response to terrorism, however, is firmly grounded in the recognition that such response is consistent with the standards that are the hallmark of civilised society. It is not at all surprising that American treatment of those who have been taken as prisoners to the Guantanamo Base on Cuba has become a matter of grave controversy.

I have had several discussions about the matter during the past week. In one, a distinguished academic lawyer suggested that it was not unreasonable to restrain during flight people believed to be extremely dangerous — and likely to be willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to destroy an aircraft. Keeping them like animals in cages after their arrival, he agreed, was a completely different, and unacceptable, matter.

It is fair to say that concern over the Americans' treatment of the prisoners has been growing. Politicians of all parties, lawyers, international affairs specialists, the media, and ordinary citizens have become more and more unhappy about American behaviour.

At one level, there is a question of consistency. The response to the September 11 attacks, we have been frequently told, was a war against terrorism. Logically, people captured in the course of such a conflict must be prisoners of war, and as such treated in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention. This is denied by the United States Government, which sees them as "unlawful combatants".

The real questions, however, are far deeper than that. First of all, what about the presumption of innocence? No state that claims to operate under the rule of law should accept a statement which brands people as guilty before they have been arraigned, let alone convicted.

Taking prisoners in Afghanistan ... a matter of controversy.

Second, what about the matter of humane treatment of human beings? On this, the attitude of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is not reassuring. "I do not feel even the slightest concern over their treatment," he declared. "They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else." The chilling and insensitive arrogance of this remark is breathtaking. It demonstrates that one can have little confidence in Mr. Rumsfeld's credentials as an upholder of human rights. These questions raise important ethical issues. Essentially, if civilised states are engaged in a battle against terrorism they must do so from a base firmly built on the standards that the terrorists are attacking. If that base is flawed, those conducting the battle are in a weak position.

To the ethical issues must be added a practical one. It, too, can be expressed as a question: what will be the likely effect of American behaviour on international attitudes? That was treated in another conversation that I had during the past week, with a leading academic specialist on international affairs. He shook his head in incomprehension. Did the Americans not realise how quickly sympathetic supporters could be turned against them? There has of course been criticism of American policy from within the U.S., some commentators recognising that to deny that anyone captured during fighting in Afghanistan has basic human rights is to accept the values of terrorism.

In Britain, the Government has come under pressure from politicians and in the media to act as a toughly critical friend of the United States. Here are some examples: Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, asked why the American Government had abandoned civilised values and, in its mistreatment of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, abased itself almost to their level. Adam Roberts, Professor of International Relations at Oxford, writing in the Sunday Independent, called for the U.S. to be advised by its friends to show more respect for international standards and the decent opinion of mankind. And The Observer in an editorial reflected on the importance of Britain as a friend of the U.S. being ready to "dramatise the failings of our closest ally, even at the danger of causing offence".

Concern about American treatment of prisoners is not a sign of going "soft on terrorism", nor is it an example of anti-Americanism. It is a straightforward recognition that you cannot win any battle for civilised standards if you do not maintain them yourself.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at

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