A Nation Engaged: The United States’ Human Rights Record
What is America’s place in the world?
We're exploring that question through the lens of human rights as part of A Nation Engaged, a joint project with NPR and public radio stations across the country.
We're mapping how America’s national security policies and values have shifted since 9/11 and exploring how U.S. counterterrorism policies, especially in Guantanamo Bay, have influenced other countries. And what does all this means for the presidential race?
We spoke with Joe Margulies, a professor of law and government who has represented clients at Guantanamo prison, and Ian Hurd, director of the International Studies Program at Northwestern University.
Here’s some of what they had to say:
On Guantanamo Bay as a symbol
Margulies: It’s a prison where a relatively small number of people are held beyond meaningful judicial supervision and access to the law, but it also is this extraordinarily potent symbol. That symbolic power, nationally and internationally, is probably even more important than its actual place in the world.
Hurd: The contradictions between the realities of Guantanamo as a place and a symbol and the mythologizing the U.S. does about itself (as a human rights leader) is so loud that it’s inescapable.
On counterterrorism strategies in the U.S. after 9/11
Margulies: I think we are embedding the idea of an extremely long, open-ended war. None of us can say how we’ll know when we have won it. None of us can say where it should operate and where it shouldn’t. All we know is that we are at war against this thing, the name of which people debate, and that that justifies some extraordinary behavior on our part.
On the role of international law in human rights
Hurd: It shifts the way that governments that are using torture have to justify themselves. They have to be more attentive to the specific legal content of these rules and then make new kinds of arguments about why they’re not violating them.
In a way, this whole politics of mistreating people has shifted from moral and political terrain into legal jurisdictions.
On how domestic views affect international politics
Margulies: Alongside the increase in receptivity of what we conventionally call torture there is a narrative taking shape that holding people in solitary confinement constitutes a form of torture. Both narratives are emerging at the same time: a willingness to torture in one sphere and a condemnation of other previously accepted behavior because it’s torture, in another sphere.
I think it’s possible that we can reclaim a robust space for how the United States should conduct itself that reaches both how we behave inside an interrogation room and how we behave inside a prison cell and say that what those two places have in common is an essential dignity to all human beings.
Hurd: It’s a reminder that human rights practices begin at home. How governments treat people is a question that arrives in prisons, in courts, on the street, in tax law, in Guantanamo. If we want to start judging governments by what they do we should start looking at what our own government does at home.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.