Human Rights

US Supreme Court does the right thing

The US Supreme Court has ruled that the Bush Administration’s plans to try captives from the war on Islamic Fundamentalist extremists in military tribunals without considering them prisoners of war is a non-starter.  Click here to read the article in CNN.

This is a major step forward in bringing America’s conduct in the "War on Terrorism" in line with our values as a country.  The Bush Administration for years has been trying to claim that enemy combatants that were captured in Afghanistan (and Iraq) somehow fall outside of the Geneva Convention completely.  They invented a new category "enemy combatant" and claimed these people are neither prisoners of war or civilians.  The Geneva Convention only provides those two categories: if someone has been detained during time of war, they are either a prisoner of war or a civilian, and there are certain protections and rights for either category.  The Bush Administration was using this new catgory as an excuse for harsh treatment of prisoners and for a right to hold people without charges indefinitely.  These are police-state type tactics.  If some other country did something like that we’d be all over the place screaming about human rights.

The Supreme Court in a 5-3 ruling (it would have been 5-4 except Justice Alito recused himself) said that the prisoners need to be treated either as prisoners of war, in which case they come under the rules of the military courts martial system, or as civilians entitled to all the protections of civilian court.  The Court basically ruled that the Administration cannot make up new rules to suit their purposes.

I find it very disappointing that when I go to technorati and do a search on "human rights" all I find are right wing blogs saying what a terrible thing this Supreme Court decision is.  Typical is this response from The Strata-Sphere, a right wing blog, which says "The left has taken sides and it is not with America! The left is rushing to defend those prisoners like Khalid Shiek Mohammed (who is directly responsible for 9-11) from the horrors of being kept awake or taunted in order to learn when and where and how the next attack may happen."

Prisoner abuse has been much more than "the horrors of being kept awake."  Prisoners have died of torture in US custody.  Torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was not limited to people like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but rather it extended to a random assortment of people picked up from the streets in the hopes of finding some scraps of information. 

As I described it in a sermon I gave on the abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq (click here to read the sermon) "The definition of torture contained in a convention which the United States has signed defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a
confession…. I would certainly consider it torture to be tied up naked in a cell, or chained to the bars, or forced to simulate sex with another man. There are pictures of a man with wires on him, standing on a small stool, who was reportedly told if he falls off, and disconnects a wire he would be electrocuted. If that’s not psychological torture, what is?"

The Torah tells us that ALL human beings are created "b’tzelem Elokim," in the image of God.  Even our enemies are entitled to certain rights.  There are rules of engagement when we go to war.  A lot of additional information on Jewish views on torture can be found at the Rabbi’s for Human Rights website.

Today is a day when we are back on the road to being able to feel proud about how America, one of the greatest countries in the world, conducts itself.  As the world’s only current superpower, as a nation that has served as a powerful beacon for democracy and a champion of human rights, it is a very appropriate move that will help restore America’s badly tarnished image.  May the Almighty help bring an end to this conflict soon so that we do not have to continually face such ethical dilemmas.

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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