Thursday, June 12, 2008

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

By Shafique Jamal
Photo by Jasmin Bauomy

Erica Barks-Ruggles has a difficult job. Ruggles, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Unites States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, led a policy discussion at the Brookings Doha Center on “The Future of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Rights in the Gulf.” During the discussion, she explained why the U.S. State Departments publishes the Report on Human Rights Practices and how the U.S. is working with GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries to improve human rights practices. The 2007 Report was release on March 11 of this year.

Giving the talk was the easy part; the tough part was facing questions from an audience which included ambassadors, journalists, and students from the American University of Cairo’s Journalism Bootcamp.

During her talk, Ruggles noted the universal right of people to speak their minds without fear and to select their own governments. After the talk, an audience member asked why the United States did not recognize Hamas, the Islamist movement fighting Israeli occupation in Palestine, even though it was democratically elected. Ruggles responded that Hamas took over the Gaza strip, and must renounce violence before the U.S. would engage with it. The questioner, an American citizen, pointed out that the U.S. refused to recognize Hamas even before it took over the Gaza strip. Ruggles did not address this point. Nor did she address the fact that the U.S. used violence to take over Iraq. Although, in her defense, this point was not raised.

Ruggles said that she was pleased that Al Jazeera, a satellite news station based in Doha, was broadcasting the discussion. She also emphasized that free and fair elections are one of the essential elements of any truly free country. This prompted one member to ask how the U.S. could advocate for a free press when it attacked, and made statements against Al Jazeera. The U.S. military had bombed Al-Jazeera offices in Afghanistan and Iraq; one of which left Al-Jazeera camerman Tarek Ayoub dead. Ruggles response was evasive and brief: she said that her statements thanking Al Jazeera for being there and her confidence that they will report responsibly “stand on their own.”

Later on, an audience member asked Ruggles why the U.S. held Sami Al-Hajj for “no reason” for several hears without trial before dropping him off in Khartoum, Sudan. The questioner emphasized the contradiction between the U.S. advocating for human rights and their practices that violate human rights. Al-Hajj is the Al-Jazeera cameraman who was arrested by Pakistani authorities near the border with Afghanistan and transferred to U.S. custody. The Sudanese government released him immediately upon arrival.

Ruggles responded that Al-Hajj was detained because of “his affiliation with dangerous terrorists and extremists,” saying it was right to detain him and release him. She added that his association with Al-Jazeera was irrelevant to his detention and release.

Presumably, if the U.S. government thought Al-Hajj was dangerous it would not have released him. If it had evidence of this, it would have charged him. Since it released him, it must be because it concluded that he was not dangerous, though one wonders why it took over six years for the government to come to this conclusion. Perhaps Guantanamo is a sort of Betty Ford Clinic for terrorists, and the U.S. is so confident in its treatment methods that it can be sure that Al-Hajj won’t fall off the wagon. Of course, if he’s not a terrorist in the first place, that would also explain him not falling off the wagon.

Ruggles was also asked how to reconcile the America’s advocacy of human rights and democracy with its support oppressive regimes. Her responses were both verbose and evasive. She also was asked about the U.S. government’s insistence on immunity for private security contractors in Iraq. She duly noted and apologized for U.S. rights abuses “by individuals” such as in Abu Ghraib and by private security contractors. She noted that the U.S. “free and independent media” has held the U.S. government accountable for these “mistakes,” forcing the prosecution of these cases.

So the Iraqi people should rely on the U.S. media, the same media that was complicit in selling the Iraq war to the American people on a number of false premises, to protect them from private security contractors. Ruggles should also explain why the U.S. government does not have faith in the democratically elected Iraqi government, which relies on U.S. support for its very existence, to protect the rights of American security contractors.

The audience also has a challenging task; at these events the audience should coordinate their questions, so that sharp follow-ups can be raised on the heels of evasive and insufficient answers. Ruggles’ job is already difficult; we might as well make it impossible.

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