It is only to state the obvious that there have been a lot of spectacular missteps by the Bush Administration regarding Iraq. Contrary to electioneering claims of success, the situation on the ground appears to be continuing to deteriorate … if that is possible (and it most certainly is). Variously characterized as “mistakes,” “errors,” or “miscalculations” and often attributed to others, in truth the current situation is the consequence of misjudgments by those at the top.
The American abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are a case in point, showing what a combination of ignorance, insensitivity and wrong-headedness can do.
Although Abu Ghraib was not the worst of Iraqi prisons, it was the largest and best known. It was built by the British in the 1960s; tens of thousands of Iraqis have been in and (fewer) out, some remaining many years, with families visiting regularly to bring them food and sustenance. Spread across some 280 acres, it enclosed numerous buildings, at times holding more than 10,000 prisoners — by some estimates double that.
Through the decades of Baathist rule, Abu Ghraib took on an almost mythical (if it were not true!) proportion as the symbol of the Iraqi police state. Stories of routine interrogations, mistreatment, arbitrary punishments, tortures, and thousands of executions (judicially sanctioned or otherwise) mark the walls of that awful place.
All of which prompts the question: Why was this, of all places, ever used by the coalition? Why was it not sealed from use, made a monument for remembrance, like Robben Island off the coast of South Africa or like Nazi camps from the Holocaust? Or why was it not razed to the ground to exorcise from a hopefully democratic Iraq its torturous history?
Of course, every totalitarian and authoritarian regime has its infamous places, from Lubyanka Prison in Moscow to Evin Prison in Tehran. What is made of such places upon liberation can have tremendous symbolic importance for future developments.
Astoundingly, the coalition chose to fix up Abu Ghraib and detain thousands of persons there. And under which physical and legal conditions? How exactly was the Iraqi public to understand the detentions? We know that in times of war bad things happen, and not all military personnel behave honorably. So was it not to be expected that something would go wrong in Abu Ghraib under coalition authority? And was it not understood what this would mean?
I came to know Abu Ghraib after the first Gulf War when I was part of the first ever United Nations human rights team to investigate allegations of violations committed by the Government of Iraq. On a chilly day in the second week of January 1992, I vividly recall entering the storied prison.
The day before, we had met with Tariq Aziz, then Deputy Prime Minister and member of the Revolution Command Council. Expressly doubting our independence and integrity, he grudgingly told us the Government had agreed to let us in the country on what they considered a two per cent chance that we might tell the “truth” about the situation in Iraq.
We entered the prison with trepidation, knowing that anyone with whom we might have contact would surely be interrogated — read beaten badly, or worse — afterward. As a result of the slow diplomatic processes of these things, we had effectively given a month’s notice, and so we rather expected to find a cleaned up and proper operation — a Potemkin village.
Indeed, in other comparably notorious places of the world, such as Insein Prison in Rangoon, I later had the pleasure to encounter still wet paint on the buildings and neatly planted flowerbeds adorning the cell-blocks and walk-ways. Oddly, none of that was seen at Abu Ghraib.
Instead, to our astonishment, we found almost 100 inmates awaiting execution that week with dozens of corpses in the mortuary. All normal, we were told: there were plenty of capital offences in Iraq, including for minor property crimes, and so hangings were conducted Tuesdays and Thursdays with the generous exception of Saddam’s birthday when there was a temporary reprieve for those so lucky.
Walking through the massive “sections” of what can be described as a small city, we found room after room full of hundreds of prisoners. The prison, we were told, housed many thousands of inmates. Our own arithmetic confirmed this. They were separated into “light,” “heavy,” and “foreign” blocks, depending upon their crimes and citizenship.
Suddenly a group of prisoners approached us, unrestrained by the guards, and in perfect English pleaded with us to help remove the sanctions which were so badly affecting their fellow countrymen outside the prison. We noted the concern and continued walking.
After visiting those awaiting execution, held in one wing and confined to cells of two prisoners, we inspected the gallows which featured two nooses side-by-side and a third place ready for particularly busy days. Next we went to review the prison records and confirm some physical aspects of the prison which would corroborate testimonies we had previously received. Along the way, we were abruptly confronted by a couple of inmates who were being restrained and who, astonishingly, voiced complaints to us in Arabic (which our interpreters conveyed)! What moves men to such courage? It amazes me still.
Immediately, we brought them aside and received their testimonies in the protection of the vast gymnasium-like eating hall. We made it clear to the guards and our Ministry escorts (and subsequently to the prison warden and officials in Baghdad) that we knew about these individuals and would be following up on their cases. Though they were hardly key figures, it was the only way we could even attempt to provide any protection to these men on our departure from the prison and country.
We went on to scrutinize the inadequate records, confirming that prisoners were held without apparent conviction and that others had not been released on the expiration of their sentences. Many entries were simply incomplete, and registries were piled haphazardly. There was no attempt to hide the arbitrariness of the detentions or the total vulnerability of the prisoners. The evil was pedestrian.
Marking in our minds and scribbled notes various other aspects of the prison, and visiting specifically the “foreign” block to check on some individual cases (and to see what we might learn about hundreds of Kuwaitis who remained missing from the Iraqi occupation of that country), we eventually left Abu Ghraib Prison. Before doing so, I ran up on the roof of the mortuary and snapped a number of photographs to record the size, extent and lay-out of the place. Luckily, nobody stopped me; the security personnel may have been too surprised to respond. We reported our findings to the world soon thereafter.
It may be that the cases of mistreatment under coalition authority were aberrant, not pursuant to order or command, and neither widespread nor systematic – all excuses we received from Saddam Hussein’s government. Some may be reassured to know there have been internal investigations and judicial steps taken against some of those responsible for violations — as also we were told back then by the Government of Iraq. And we may never find a “smoking gun” order to torture, as we did on occasion find in Saddam’s Iraq.
So what should we believe? And more importantly, what do the people of Iraq and others of the Arab and Islamic worlds believe? Accustomed to rumors, conspiracy theories and suspicions of all kinds, now backed up with photographic and video evidence of vile acts of humiliation, degradation, and inhumanity, what should they believe? What kind of license or presumed impunity did those grinning torturers think they had? And why did they think they had it?
Obviously, not all US service personnel grasped the Bush Administration’s fine distinctions about what does or does not constitute torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or whether or not the Geneva Conventions apply or, in the words of the President’s own Counsel, are “obsolete.” Indeed, given the permissive environment which we now know was at least justified by White House and Pentagon lawyers and clearly promoted personally by the Secretary of Defense, where does responsibility lie?
Command responsibility is denied. Investigations have moved only from blaming a few lone soldiers (reserves, of course) now to blaming a lone brigade (also reserves) and just one or two unfortunately placed commanders (the General commanding the prison, also a reservist). In addition, a few CIA-contracted civilians have recently been blamed. But can such a group be scapegoats? Never mind the actual control of these personnel, what about their training? And why are reserves and civilian contractors even assigned such sensitive functions? More fundamentally, who made the judgment that had these functions carried out at such a place as Abu Ghraib?
Committed to the rule of law with basic standards of humanity, we may hope that justice will eventually be done in these cases. Only this will distinguish the coalition from Saddam’s regime.
But will this be sufficient to repair the damage done? How will it be seen in the eyes — and felt in the guts — of millions of Iraqis and others? The repugnant couplet “Abu Ghraib-Saddam” now rings as a damning triplet: “Abu Ghraib-Saddam-America.” Of course, President Bush now proposes to raze the prison — evidently to expunge it from America’s history — but military judges are preventing that in order to protect an American crime scene!
As Senator Patrick Leahy has argued, it seems at least undeniable that the Bush Administration “set the tone” for such conduct which has contributed to the United States, in Senator Ernest Hollings’ words, having “lost its moral authority.” This is plain in the increasingly impatient words of widely respected senior Republican Senators. Notably, Senator John Warner is still pushing for a full investigation of the events at Abu Ghraib with complete assessment of all responsibilities, while Senator Richard Lugar has criticized the “cavalier” foreign policy of the current Administration.
The events in Abu Ghraib, and the excuses and scapegoating that followed, hardly won the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Instead, all this speaks volumes of insensitivity — to the victims past and present, to the people of Iraq, and even to the soldiers who are serving now with integrity in the most difficult of circumstances. Whether borne of jaw-dropping ignorance, analytical failure, or pure misjudgment, the unfolding of these events in such a place as the infamous Abu Ghraib can only be labeled catastrophic.
The story of Abu Ghraib was documented and publicly known well before the coalition’s intervention in Iraq. It is a colossal error of judgment to have risked such an outcome. Only someone high up can be responsible for that.
John Packer was until recently a Fellow at the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. From 1991 to 1996 he served as a UN Human Rights Officer investigating serious human rights violations in Iraq.
Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2005, page 6. Some rights reserved.
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