Pavel Litvinov: No American Gulag
[Mr. Litvinov was a dissident active in human rights causes in the Soviet Union, now lives in the United States.]
Several days ago I received a telephone call from an old friend who is a longtime Amnesty International staffer. He asked me whether I, as a former Soviet "prisoner of conscience" adopted by Amnesty, would support the statement by Amnesty's executive director, Irene Khan, that the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba is the "gulag of our time."
"Don't you think that there's an enormous difference?" I asked him.
"Sure," he said, "but after all, it attracts attention to the problem of Guantanamo detainees."
The word "gulag" was a bureaucratic acronym for the main prison administration in Stalin's Soviet Union. After publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," it became a symbol for the system of forced-labor camps that have been an integral feature of communist countries. Millions of prisoners confined in the gulag had not been involved in violence or committed any crime -- they were there because they belonged to a "wrong" social, national or political group or expressed a "wrong" opinion.
The cruelty and scale of the gulag system are described in numerous books, so there is no need to recount them here. By any standard, Guantanamo and similar American-run prisons elsewhere do not resemble, in their conditions of detention or their scale, the concentration camp system that was at the core of a totalitarian communist system...
...There is ample reason for Amnesty to be critical of certain U.S. actions. But by using hyperbole and muddling the difference between repressive regimes and the imperfections of democracy, Amnesty's spokesmen put its authority at risk. U.S. human rights violations seem almost trifling in comparison with those committed by Cuba, South Korea, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
The most effective way to criticize U.S. behavior is to frankly acknowledge that this country should be held to a higher standard based on its own Constitution, laws and traditions. We cannot fulfill our responsibilities as the world's only superpower without being perceived as a moral authority. Despite the risks posed by terrorism, the United States cannot indefinitely detain people considered dangerous without appropriate safeguards for their conditions of detention and periodic review of their status.
Words are important. When Amnesty spokesmen use the word "gulag" to describe U.S. human rights violations, they allow the Bush administration to dismiss justified criticism and undermine Amnesty's credibility. Amnesty International is too valuable to let it be hijacked by politically biased leaders.
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