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Torture is Bad for People and Nations

Karin Ryan

     ... human rights activist. Joining The Carter Center's Human Rights Program in 1988, Ms. Ryan has assisted former U.S. President Jimmy and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter on a range of issues, from personal interventions regarding urgent human rights abuses to addressing generally abusive policies and practices. Ms. Ryan has represented the Center in many international negotiations including on the International Criminal Court. She has worked with the U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) and participated in election observations. Her special interest is in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she has lived.


What happens when the United States betrays the American dream of "Liberty and Justice for All"? Abandons the Geneva Conventions when treating detainees, uses torture and secret prisons, suspends the right to habeus corpus that goes all the way back to Magna Carta?  

Shock waves ripple across the world's entire human rights movement, says Karin Ryan, Senior Human Rights Advisor at The Carter Center. These actions say, in effect, that America -- one of the architects of the human rights movement -- has abandoned the principles for which it was once the beacon for the world. And America is so influential that particularly in addressing terrorism, what it does -- and does not do -- has profound effects.

Consider America's policies of using torture, indefinite detentions, murder and denial of the fundamental right to habeus corpus. Are they policies that contribute to greater cooperation and respect for human rights in the world? Or undermine them? No question -- the latter, says Ms. Ryan as she tells stories from the world's human rights defenders whose local dictators use American logic for fighting terrorism to lock up journalists and human rights activists.

This is a critical time, Ms. Ryan believes. Americans must balance concerns for defending the nation with a realization that certain strategies actually can help create, maintain or fuel conditions that lead to the creation or recruitment of more enemies. Use Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pitard -- Are we dissuading people from getting caught up in the vortex of being recruited and participating? Or are we creating more terrorists?

Dialogue is Ms. Ryan's answer to fixing what's wrong with the policy-making process that has diverted the American Ship of State from of its time-honored course. Get genuine, on-the-ground human rights defenders actively engaged with Congresspeople and Administration policy makers. Tell those making the policies what the real consequences of their actions will be from Zimbabwe to Burma, Nigeria to Pakistan, New York City to Hometown, USA. Then start by being good neighbors, heavy-handed doesn't work.

She's optimistic that the time is now right to change the process by which policy itself is made, penetrate the government's closed internal discussions with the fresh air of information and moral influence that can help make better policy. Yes, the challenge is daunting -- “"group-think" roundly criticized by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission is entrenched; and there remains in control a small group of dedicated True Believers for whom the linchpin to freedom, human rights and democracy is the creation of space for free market capitalism. But Ms. Ryan does have stories of genuine change resulting from this approach.

Participate in the dialogue, Ms. Ryan urges. Ask the hard questions. The consequences of our answers, she assures us, will reach to wherever human rights activists live -- and die -- in that fragile space between repression and liberty.

[This Program was recorded November 21, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

When the U. S. government makes decisions like abandoning the Geneva Conventions when treating detainees, a shock wave is felt by the human rights movement, worldwide, Karin Ryan tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. She gives examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:11

Conversation 2

Dismay and fear, not hatred, are what Ms. Ryan hears from people around the world as they question America's radical departure from “"liberty and justice for all." She quotes President Jimmy Carter, "The United States didn't invent human rights.  Human rights invented America." The human rights movement in the world is a dynamic process, she says, clear that what America does -- both directly and indirectly -- impacts that movement. The current U.S. administration's disregard for fundamental rights like habeus corpus -- which goes back to the Magna Carta -- is considered.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:45

Conversation 3

Ms. Ryan traces the United States' long history of abridging basic rights during times of crisis, linking today's troubling acceptance of torture to fear following terrorist tactics in 2001. As important as she says it undeniably is for a nation to defend itself, Ms. Ryan explores how certain strategies help create, maintain or fuel conditions that lead to the creation and recruitment of more enemies.  She expands on how people inside and outside the current administration and in Congress are asking, “"Are our actions creating more terrorists?" and how the U.S. treatment of detainees is undermining America's image in the world.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:57

Conversation 4

Ms. Ryan speaks to the consequences of policies which permit the documented murders committed by “"Other Government Agencies"” (the CIA) and the subsequent failure of various U.S. agencies. She describes the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum and how it has brought Human Rights Defenders together with high-ranking elected and appointed figures in Washington, D.C. She presents "dialogue" as an antidote to both entrenched “"group-think" and aggressive ideologies.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:15

Conversation 5

Because Americans are responsible for governing themselves, the information generated by human rights advocates -- not an elite's ideology -- is key to guiding good decisions. Ms. Ryan addresses what's wrong with today's governmental processes that encourage “"group-think,"” regardless of party affiliation, at the expense of the fresh air offered by those with moral influence. It's time for the kind of humility that can make a nation truly great, she says.  The idea of “"group-think"” is expanded to include the media.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:46

Conversation 6

The American Administrations' logic in fighting terrorism has undermined human rights efforts globally, Ms. Ryan demonstrates. Speak up, she urges anyone distressed by America violating basic human rights, at home and abroad. The U.N. is the only game in town, she reminds us, convinced that heavy-handed American pressure will not strengthen the U.N., being a good neighbor will.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:30


The use of torture, secret prisons and flagrant violations of fundamental human rights are an outrage and a disgrace, crimes that defile all for which America has proudly stood. As a self-governing nation, it is the responsibility of every American to end these abuses and to hold accountable those responsible.

We admire and honor Human Rights activists and organizations around the world, people genuinely committed to democracy, justice and freedom for women and men everywhere.

... and, we thank Keith Green for finding a couple of broken links, which we've repaired, below.


Related Links:

The Carter Center was founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, in 1982 in Atlanta, Georgia. It works in 65 countries, all over the world, “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope.”

The 2006 Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum brought together human rights defenders from around the world at The Carter Center in Atlanta. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour co-chaired the event, entitled “Beyond Elections: Defending Human Rights in the Age of Democratization.”

Human Rights First is partnering with The Carter Center.

Article 5 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel,
inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The full Declaration is available here; there's a summary version here

Wikipedia has a useful summary of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project released a survey in June 2006 including global attitudes about the United States.

For many years Mia Bloom has studied terrorism and terrorists. In Dying to Kill:  The Allure of Suicide Terror, she examines and explains what to many of us is inexplicable. Surprisingly, terrorist activity is often “market driven.”

In his book and television series Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler looks closely at the physical reality, the land, that is the “holy land.” In his later book, Where God was Born, he explores the geography of faith amongst the “people of the book,” Abraham’s children: Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Is Islam undergoing a reformation? Reza Aslan thinks it is and that terrorism directed at the West is a by-product.

Sandra Mackey has lived in and written extensively about the political-social-cultural-historical complexity of the Middle East and about the rise of fundamentalism around the world.

Geneive Abdo has been both a Nieman and a Guggenheim Fellow. For a decade she lived and reported from the Middle East, principally Cairo. She is the author of No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam in which she examines Islamic feminism and Islamic democracy, neither of which, she says, is oxymoronic; nor will they look like the American version.

In How Israel Lost, Richard Ben Cramer argues that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has coarsened and corrupted Israel. He cautions that the same could happen to America in Iraq.

A former member of the National Security Council, Robert Pastor now directs the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University. Much of his work revolves around the challenge of building and sustaining democratic governance in challenging environments.

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