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Annan Speaks

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Message Jayne Stahl
What better time to reflect on outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's farewell speech, Monday morning, at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, than on the eve of release of results of an investigation into alleged ongoing, and routine detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay. The report by Colonel Richard Basset, an Army officer commissioned to investigate the sworn allegations of Marine Sergeant Heather Cerveny that "a group of sailors she met at a Guantanamo Bar on September 23 described beating detainees as common practice," can be expected any day now, and one may expect it to be riveting, even if it isn't shocking.

What is shocking, but not surprising, is what Mr. Annan had to say, in a town called Independence, a venue he specifically selected in order to honor the memory of a former president, Harry Truman, who was instrumental in founding the U.N. Mr. Annan has chosen this time, and place, in which to justifiably, and eloquently, criticize the nation that has been the 500 pound gorilla in the United Nations for the last 6 years; the Bush regime, in its departure from those Democratic principles that have distinguished our country, for generations, under the transparent guise of fighting a war against terror. "Human rights and the rule of law are vital to global security and prosperity," said Mr. Annan, and when America "appears to abandon its own ideals and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused;" he quotes from President Truman: "The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the peoples of the world." Mr. Annan''s concern for the core values of "global solidarity, mutual accountability and multilaterlism" (AP) are justified, as is his implication that our country has used the Security Council as little more than a stage on which to act out our "national interests."

This remarkable address today. at the Truman Museum, reminds us, too, of a host of inquiries, and allegations into misconduct, by our military, as well as an ongoing, and unprecedented campaign by those in authority to blur the line between legitimate questioning and the use of interrogation techniques that can only be described as torture. We are reminded of a report by a U.S. military doctor, just about a year ago ago today, of widespread prisoner abuse by Iraqi police in a secret Iraqi jail. (Christian Science Monitor)

While the Iraqi interior minister argued with the claim that torture was the prescribed method of acquiring information from those detained in this clandestine Iraqi jail, many U.S. soldiers, and other Iraqi officials corroborated findings of Major R. John Sturkey, a former U.S. Army doctor who served in Baghdad last year, who says he "personally treated about a dozen men who had been tortured and observed an environment of overcrowding and neglect" in the covert prison. What message do we send to the world when, on the one hand, Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, says that "the U.S. does not authorize or condone torture of detainees" and, on the other, senior members of the administration have argued that the UN Convention Against Torture treaty rules against "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" do not apply to enemy combatants.

Around Thanksgiving-time, last year, in a press conference, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Joint Chief of Staff Chairman, General Peter Pace, insisted that "it's absolutely the responsibility of every US service member if they see inhumane treatment being conducted to intervene to stop it," to which Defense Secretary Rumsfeld responded: "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it." To the contrary, General Pace argued: "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try and stop it."

While there may be ambivalence regarding how to respond to torture, on the part of the upper echelons of the U.S. military, there doesn't appear to be much ambivalence on the part of the American people. In a recent poll of nine countries, when queried as to whether they think it's ever acceptable to torture terrorists to obtain information as part of an interrogation process, 36% of Americans surveyed said that torture is never acceptable placing the U.S. second from last, and above South Korea only; 60% of those Italians surveyed said torture must never be used to interrogate, followed by 54% of Spanish surveyed, and 48% of British.

Yes, you're right, Italy and Spain are highly religious, and largely Catholic countries, but the U.S. ranks as among the top nations, in the industrialized world, in which "religion," and religious practices, are of critical importance; we have a president who is "born again," and are currently waging a "holy war" against the Middle East. Yet, ironically, we find ourselves significantly below Great Britain, notably 12 percentage points, in a survey addressing the issue of whether it's ever appropriate to inflict cruel and inhuman punishment. Is this what we've brought with us to the New World, over the past 200 odd years, a greater tolerance for torture, as well as inflicting pain and suffering on others?

All those for whom the term "human rights" still resonates applaud the remarks of Kofi Annan, as well as his appreciation of President Truman's efforts at multilateralism, but one can't help but remember, too, the words of another president, Mr. Truman's predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, in his address to the Senate, back in July, 1919, which are, alas, also eerily appropriate: "The monster that had resorted to arms must be put in chains that could not be broken." While Mr. Wilson was referring to Germany, how sad to think that, nearly a century later, he might just as well be referring to us.

(previously posted on The Huffington Post)
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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