2011-04-13 State Dept and Its Openness to Scrutiny on Bradley Manning & Human Rights

Acting Deputy Department Spokesman Mark C. Toner was confronted during a briefing with a few members of the press, who chose to confront the State Department on its handling of human rights especially the current detention and treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning on April 11.

In a video of the briefing, Matt Lee, a reporter for the Associated Press, asks about “the annual ritualistic dance” of the State Department’s release of the Human Rights Report, which China immediately condemned. He wonders if the annual report, which he considers to be an “annual exchange of vitriol,” will have any constructive effects on the State Department's April 11 & 12 meetings with China.

Toner responds saying he doesn’t consider the annual exchange to be vitriolic at all. And adds, “We are candid in our exchanges with China about human rights concerns both from the podium and in our private meetings with them. And certainly, we don’t regard it as an interference in our internal affairs when any foreign government or individual organization monitors our human rights practices. And we are proud to say that our system of government allows for that kind of comment without fear or without fear of recrimination. And it speaks to the value of our system, we feel.”

Lee seizes on Toner’s answer to ask a canny follow-up question, “Can you explain why, if the United States is proud of its human rights record, that the UN special rapporteur has complained that you’re not allowing him independent access to Bradley Manning?”

Responsibility is shifted to the Department of Defense, as Toner explains there have been conversations with the UN special rapporteur and “in terms of visits to PFC Manning, that’s something for the Department of Defense.” To which Lee asks if the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has the same problem.

“You are – the State Department is the direct contact with the ICRC. At least it was for the Guantanamo inmates. Have you had any contact with them?” asks Lee. Toner essentially repeats what he just said. Then another reporter jumps in.

MOHAMMED: If you welcome scrutiny, where’s the harm?

TONER: I said we’re having conversations with him. We’re trying to work with him to meet his needs. But I don’t understand the question.

MOHAMMED: Well, you said you welcome scrutiny from outsiders of the United States human rights record –

TONER: Right. We do.

QUESTION: — that you feel that it speaks to the strength of the U.S. system. So why does it take very lengthy conversations to agree to let a UN special rapporteur have access to an inmate?

TONER: For the specific visitation requests, that’s something the DOD process would best answer. We’ve been very clear that there’s a legal process underway. We’ve been forthright I think in talking about Pfc Manning’s situation. We are in ongoing conversations with the special rapporteur. We have nothing to hide. In terms of actual visit to Manning, that’s something DOD would handle.

The exchange is instructive because in the international community the US does not display a public position of openness to scrutiny of its handling of human rights at all. US leaders typically do not think they should be subjected to criticism anymore than China thinks the US has a right to report on their human rights record every year. And, a prime example of this reality can be seen in the US’ recent decision to join the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)

Subjected to a periodic review in November of last year, which all members of the council must face every so often, countries like Iran, Cuba, North Korea, China along with allies like the UK and Australia addressed human rights issues in the US. Cuba Ambassador Randolph Reyes Rodriguez called on the US to put on trial “perpetrators of torture, extrajudicial executions and serious violations of human rights committed in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram.” The UK and Australia condemned the death penalty, racial profiling and the failure to close Guantanamo.

The US does not find it should have to face criticism from countries like Iran, Cuba North Korea or China, countries that clearly violate human rights regularly, but the US itself is guilty of routine human rights violations. If it truly takes human rights seriously, it should be willing to let any and all countries share their views on the US. It should understand that each country in any discussion of human rights will have to own up to what they do if they want their concerns to be considered legitimate. Yet, the US reaction to talk of torture, closing Guantanamo, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, etc is all too often similar to Niles Gardener of the Heritage Foundation’s remark on an edition of Inside Story that covered the UNHRC’s periodic review of the US record on human rights: “For the United States to be subjected to this kind of abuse from many of the world’s worst human rights violators is frankly farcical…Why on Earth the Obama Administration is willing to subject the United States to this kind of humiliation is frankly beyond comprehension.”

Next, Lee and Toner go back and forth on Toner’s use of the word “forthright.” Lee references the forced resignation of PJ Crowley from the State Department stating, “It seems to me that the only person who was forthright in discussions of his treatment resigned several days after making those comments. Can you explain what you mean by you’ve been forthright in terms of his treatment?”

The resulting exchange demonstrates the following: (1) a legal process is underway so the State Department cannot talk openly yet (2) it can have a conversation on the case with the UN special rapporteur but the State Department is unable to share details with the press on conversations with the top UN investigator on torture. Finally, when it is pointed out that Toner has said the US is willing to open itself to scrutiny but, on the “first example anyone raises,” (3) it seems like there is a place for scrutiny of human rights but not here at this briefing.

TONER: Matt, I would raise with you that much of China’s report came from open source, which is what an independent media does and would note that that kind of independent media does serve a function and there are details about Manning’s case and other human rights concerns out there but I’m not going to talk about it here.

This quote is starkly revealing, as Toner seems to suggest he is not able to speak openly but “independent media” is able to do so and has been doing so. It’s almost as if Toner wants Lee to watch an edition of Democracy Now! or pull up Firedoglake.com to find the latest on Manning.

Essentially, Toner is not prepared to allow members of the press corps to be the check on power the two reporters challenging him are trying to be. He does not dispute the notion that there are reasons to be concerned. But, he’s just doing his job and, again, there’s a legal process underway.

Post originally appeared at Seismologik.com