America’s Human Rights Failures
Anthony D. Romero, a former public-interest attorney, is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is the ACLU's sixth executive director, and the first Latino and openly gay man to serve in that capacity. In 2007, Romero and co-author Dina Temple-Raston published In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror.
Question: Where do we rank in the spectrum of industrialized nations in terms of civil liberties we afford our citizens?
Anthony Romero: America has a remarkable history of both protecting civil liberties and trampling on them. We have to understand that America was at the forefront of pushing through a concern for the human rights in the aftermath of World War II. It was the atrocities that we saw with the Germans, Italians and Japanese that made us codify the universal declaration of human rights: a uniform code for the protection of human rights. That was America’s patrimony as much as anything else. That was Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR who did all that, and frankly it served as a model for many of the world’s leading industrial countries.
What’s happened in the last eight years has been that, we set these rules and norms up we’ve espoused them, we’ve championed them for decades—and then we broke them. We went back on those commitments and those promises. We thought that the rules didn’t have to apply to us: that the Chinese shouldn’t torture but we can; that the Cubans shouldn’t hold people indefinitely without charge or trial, but we can; that we can hide things from the public and the press, Congress and America in a way that we would denounce any country, any government from doing that to their citizens.
So what we’ve seen is just the fact that there has been an enormous amount of hypocrisy, and double standards: an America that always championed these issues for other countries and said that these were the core issues for us in our nation. Now the rules are different for us, and unless we take that double standard head on, that hypocrisy that we get criticized about overseas will certainly continue.
Question: How has the U.S. failed in terms of protecting freedom of the press?
Anthony Romero: We still see that this administration is very closed when it comes to matters of national security. We think it’s a huge mistake that the president decided to try to shut down the release of more than two thousand photographs that show torture and abuse in Afghanistan in Iraq at Guantanamo. This is a lawsuit we filed in 2003 asking the government for an any old documents that talked about torture abuse happening on detainees held by the American government. We were fishing, then the photographs of Abu Ghraib come to life in 2004 and this law suit grew into enormous significance: we began to pull out documents from the FBI, from the Department of Defense, from the CIA, and then we argued over a number of years about whether or not the word “document” includes the photographs taken or held by the U.S. government and, after winning at two different courts and having the government appeal for both of our wins of those levels, the whole justice department said, “O.K., we’ll give up the photographs; they are documents, they are relevant to your Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.” Then, the President backtracks because he’s worried about the backlash that will be unleashed from the photographs, and certainly no one wants to see backlash.
We don’t want to see mayhem or destruction, we don’t want to see our soldiers put into harms way, but frankly what’s going to put our soldiers in harms way is not the release of the photos—it’s the fact that we’ve tortured and abused individuals and we’ve captured those very policies on photographs and videos. The only way you’re going to create the political will to ensure that we’ll never do it again, is to make sure we look at it straight in the face. We have to understand what really went on to create the political will to make sure that we prosecute those who allow that to happen, and to make sure we put in place the sufficient deterrence that, going forward, no one else will break the law like the way we saw on the Bush years.
Question: What are the rights issues with the country’s criminal justice system?
Anthony Romero: Well, if you’re poor or you’re a minority, then criminal justice doesn’t work for you. The deck of cards is stacked against you, and it’s clear that the criminal justice system treats people who have resources or who are not minorities very differently. You can see that already in some of the efforts we’ve begun to address, and here you have to give the Obama administration a great deal of credit in helping erase the differences between crack and powdered cocaine. Where crack cocaine was dealt with more aggressively than powdered cocaine, and that was basically a racial disparity where mostly whites would be able to afford or would use powdered cocaine, and often it was minorities who used crack cocaine.
But when you look at the death penalty and you look at the individuals who receive death sentences, they often have to do with poor lawyers because we have not resourced the criminal justice system or the public defender system well. You deal with the biases of juries, especially in Southern States and places where discrimination is still rampant. You deal with politicians and some district attorneys and state attorney generals who are using race and crime as a way to run for office and to curry the favor of conservative and white voters, and so what we have to understand that the criminal justice system is really stacked against people who are poor or low income and we have to resource that system in a way that’s much more significant.
We still have people who are on death row whose lawyers were asleep during their trials, whose lawyers didn’t do discovery in cases of life or death, who had never done a capital defense case, who didn’t have access to the full litigation and investigative experts that you need in a death penalty case. Now, a lot of places are still putting people to death by winging it; people who are on death row are perhaps even our innocent—that’s one of the most remarkable things about the development with DNA evidence.
It’s shown clearly now that there are people who have been on death row who now, through DNA evidence, we can show were fully innocent: more than a hundred or so individuals over the period of the last several years. That should make us think twice about the infallibility of putting someone to death. That should make us think twice about the fallibility of our criminal justice system. That should make us have the political will just to step back from it and say, “Look, this system doesn’t work. We need to abolish the death penalty.”
No matter how great the system we construct, it will be fallible, and taking someone’s life, which is the most irreversible error that you can ever commit, is just too great a mistake to run the risk that you’re going to put one innocent person to death. That’s why we’ve always believed that death penalty should be utterly and completely abolished. No matter what the sentence or circumstance is, and no matter what the crime, because it can never work and it’s certainly not working well when it comes to low income and minority people.
Question: What is a country that is more attentive to civil liberties than the U.S.?
Anthony Romero: Well, if you look at Canada for instance, you have increasing protection for civil liberties and civil rights. They enacted something similar to the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and yet they backed away much more clearly from some of those law enforcement powers. You see some of the nations in Western Europe who have been absolutely shocked at the commission of torture and even been troubled by their own involvement and practices like rendition. Rendition is a polite word for kidnapping people, shipping them off to a country where they will be tortured, and so you have these big debates swirling in places like Italy and Great Britain and elsewhere about how those practices just don’t comport with their own concerns and their own protections for human rights. So America right now is not leading the pack on human rights and or civil liberties.
America’s is really trailing the crowd, and unless we take very definitive steps to restore our leadership role: showing that we can deal with these issues at home, that we’ll prosecute the criminals who broke the law, that we will go back toward tried and true federal court system, that we will have fully open, transparent government, and that we will shed down surveillance techniques that focus on law abiding Americans who’ve done nothing wrong, we’re going to continue to trail the pack.
Recorded on: July 20, 2009
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