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America is on trial


There is no doubt that the U.S. was traumatised, by September 2001. So when a country's way of life is threatened, it is not surprising that the priority becomes focused on dealing with the perceived threat. But there is a danger with such an approach ....


Fair trial?... the families of those at Guantanamo, like Moazzam Begg's father (above), are a worried lot.

"WHATEVER Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi are alleged to have done, they have a right to a fair trial". So wrote The Observer in an editorial about the suggestion that these two British citizens, and four other people held by the United States in their Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, may be tried by an American military court. The British newspaper described the military legal process — which could lead to the death penalty — as deeply flawed. That is a description echoed in many comments on the situation.

One special area of concern must be that President Bush — who is, let us remember, Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces — has declared that the six were members of Al-Qaida. Such public pre-judgment will deepen anxiety about the fairness of the judicial process.

The fact that the British Government has been the main ally of President Bush in the war in Iraq, and before that in Afghanistan, gives particular piquancy to what is happening. One might suppose that special care would be taken to ensure proper treatment of the citizens of your international partner. The fact that the U.S. Government appears to be impervious to such considerations underlines the unequal nature of that alliance.

In essence, of course, what is important about this is not what it says about American attitudes to allies. What is important is what it shows about respect for the rule of law, something which is surely an essential hallmark of a civilised nation.

There is no doubt that the U.S. was deeply shocked, indeed traumatised, by the attack on the twin towers in September 2001. That is wholly understandable, and the widespread sympathy with Americans in the aftermath of that appalling terrorist attack was a genuine and natural reaction to what had happened. When a nation's way of life is threatened it is not at all surprising that the priority becomes narrowly focused on dealing with the perceived threat.

The danger with that is that the approach to tackling the threat can easily itself threaten the very foundations of the way of life. Holding fast to important principles, such as adherence to the rule of law, is easy when there is nothing to make people propose anything else. It is much more difficult when powerful voices are arguing that "this is a special situation, and it requires special measures". And when that argument comes from an all-powerful state, the temptation to take the view that might is right is strong.

Holding fast to principles is more difficult, but it is not less important.

We are entitled to expect that the U.S. abides by the things in which it claims to believe. It is a democracy, with a well established legal system. It has a constitution which places much emphasis on the rights of citizens. It proclaims standards of international behaviour, and claims the right to intervene in other countries in the name of those standards.

It is a statement of the obvious to say that such American intervention in Iraq, has been highly controversial. British Government support for it has similarly been controversial, and remains so. (I expressed my own reservations in my "Cambridge Letter" of April 6.) There are many manifestations of the fact that policy over Iraq following its military defeat has not been well thought out. It is not clear that what has replaced Saddam Hussein is bringing stability to the region, or contentment to Iraq's citizens.

Riding roughshod over such basic rights as the right to fair and open trial is hardly likely to improve the reputation of the U.S. It can be seen therefore as a major error of political judgment.

That should be a problem for the U.S. The basic principle which is at stake, however, is an issue for the international community as a whole.

There is a long established International Court of Justice. Why should that not be used? How can the American Government justify the continued use of Guantanamo Bay to hold prisoners outside American civil jurisdiction? Such questions need to be asked urgently. The British Government above all needs to ask them — and demand satisfactory answers. That will doubtless not be popular with President Bush, but principle is more important than popularity. When something is right, it should be done. And — to put it slightly differently — when something is wrong, as a military trial would be, President Bush should be left in no doubt that that is the view which people, including friendly governments, hold.

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

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