NEW YORK – “The lead interrogator at the Division Interrogation Facility had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.”
Thus wrote Eric Fair in The Washington Post in 2007, regarding his experience as a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004.
As terrible as his experience was, we now know that even greater abuses against prisoners took place not only in Iraq but at Guantanamo and other places holding prisoners from the “war on terror.” These abuses show human beings at their worst.
Predictably, Fair’s admission drew an equally abusive response, in Harper’s Magazine for example: “Eric, I still have a .45-caliber 1911. I suspect you know the firearm. I’d loan it to you gleefully if you get really depressed, and happily take whatever legal consequence might come my way for having done so. You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool. With revulsion at the subhuman that you and others like you surely are.”
Fair’s testimony makes for painful reading, but doing so is fundamental for better understanding what has been going on in Iraq, at Guantanamo and at many detention facilities. It also reveals the consequences for those who carried out the abuses. They don’t remain immune to their own horror after the experience, a horror they try to overcome with a life of service to their fellow humans. Fair is now a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.
Fair’s admissions are particularly relevant in light of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times, titled “A Cruel and Unusual Record.” As a Peace Prize recipient (2002), Carter strongly criticizes U.S. human rights policies, particularly under President Barack Obama’s watch, such as approval of legislation that makes legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliating with terrorist organizations or “associated forces.”
According to Carter, “This law violates the right to freedom of expression and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, two rights enshrined” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was written under U.S. leadership.
Carter’s criticism follows similar assessments by several human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Amnesty International blasted Obama for signing the National Defense Authorization Act into law last New Year’s Eve: “Despite expressing serious reservations, the Obama administration has paved the way for legislation that will authorize indefinite detention. The bill places enormous power in the hands of future presidents. The only answer the president has is, ‘Trust me.’”
Human rights groups argue that indefinite detention constitutes torture because it creates conditions of secrecy and isolation that facilitate abuses and contravene the UDHR prohibition against “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Carter’s comments place him at odds with Obama’s human rights policies. It is a sad irony that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize because the Nobel Committee believed that his actions would strengthen peace, human rights and the reign of law.
However, Carter’s comments are a firm rebuttal of current U.S. policies. According to Carter: “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, the basic rule of law and principles of justice enumerated in the [UDHR]. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”
Cesar Chelala, Ph.D. and M.D., is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.