Have the watchdogs lost perspective?


When international watchdog groups say our troops are "degrading" or "humiliating" prisoners in Iraq, it's natural to assume they are referring to behavior like that uncovered at Abu Ghraib prison. But is that assumption correct?

Samizdata features an enlightening letter from Gabriel Syme, writing from Basra, Iraq, about Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, in their function as watchdogs over the treatment of prisoners.

He praises the concept of independent civilian organizations keeping an eye on the military as a brake on social pressures within the military, pressures that unchecked could lead to abuses. These private organizations serve as a backup in the event that the military's internal checks fail. He suggests that this is an example of the robustness of the Anglosphere's institutions. "In this context, one could think of Amnesty International checks as a sort of moral separation of powers."

But he goes on to say that AI and the ICRC have "completely lost perspective" in their reporting on prison abuses, which will ultimately undermine their moral authority and thus their effectiveness in performing their vital role. Syme cites this example:

As an anecdotal example that [I] know of from a man working on the reports AI compile on us: They complained that Iraqis in Umm Qasr (British/US administered detention facility in the South) where being degraded because their food was handed out in plastic bags rather than delivered on some kind of trolley or plate. The Iraqis were not bothered, the food was perfectly good, but this was thought to be "degrading". This is an important point - when one of these reports comes out and accuses anyone of "degrading" or "humiliating" behaviour, etc, it is essential to dig deeper and see exactly what they mean.

Syme goes on to analyze how this loss of perspective has come about. The groups seem to apply skepticism only to statements by military personnel, not to claims from Iraqis, even though there are powerful incentives (including financial) and no penalties for claiming to be a victim of abuse.

Go read it all, and browse through the latest offerings on Samizdata.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 1, 2004 11:00 PM.

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