Prospects: George W. and Human Rights

In his new book, Washington's Crossing, historian David Hackett Fischer recounts how humane treatment of prisoners was literally invented by George Washington on the battlefield in late 1776. Official British policy was to let field commanders decide whether to put captured enemy soldiers to the sword or to give quarter -- to keep captives alive in a barracks. Hence the expression give no quarter, which literally means to kill a captive on the spot.

Washington wept, watching through a spyglass, as his troops, taken prisoner at the disastrous Battle of New York that November, were then slaughtered. After the first battle of Trenton, on December 26 and 27, where Washington's men captured several hundred Hessian mercenaries, Washington ordered his troops to treat the captives humanely. American soldiers risked their own lives, ferrying Hessian prisoners back across the Delaware. The Hessians were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness, Fischer writes. American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with respect for human rights, even of the enemy. This idea grew stronger during the campaign of 177677, not weaker as is commonly the case.

In George W. Bush's 2000 acceptance speech in Philadelphia, the future president invoked the first one. Ben Franklin was here, Bush declared, Thomas Jefferson, and, of course, George Washington -- or, as his friends called him, George W. As if.

How instructive to contrast the way the two George Ws weighed military imperatives and human decency. It made perfect sense that the British gave the American irregulars no quarter. They were viewed by the British precisely as guerrilla terrorists, who did not respect the 18th-century conventions of warfare. The very survival of the infant republic literally hinged on the battles that Washington led that dreadful winter, far more than it does on the results of interrogations at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. But the founding George W. gave quarter.

This issue of The American Prospect includes a special report, produced in collaboration with the JEHT Foundation, addressing human rights, but in a particular sense: Our topic is the disparity between the human-rights goals that America commends to the world and the special exemption it too often asserts for itself. The Bush presidency reminds us that the United States needs human-rights standards more than ever, not just to bring freedom to benighted corners of the globe but to keep its own hands clean and its own citizens secure in our own democracy.

America claims to be different and special, but with an elastic, expedient definition of sovereignty. To follow this nation's rejection of treaties and agreements on criminal courts, human rights, and labor and environmental protections, you would think the United States was obsessed with sovereignty. Although no serious person thought U.S. officials would ever find themselves in the dock accused of genocide, for four decades conservatives blocked Senate ratification of the international convention prohibiting genocide, first proposed in 1948. In his dissent in last year's reversal of the Texas anti-sodomy statute, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia expressed indignation that his colleagues would cite evolving norms and laws beyond our shores. This Court, he declared, should not impose foreign moods, fads, or fashions on Americans.

And yet, in one huge area of international law -- investment and trade -- U.S. officials have not only welcomed infringements on U.S. domestic sovereignty but are its leading architects. Agreements like NAFTA and bodies like the World Trade Organization have subjected lawfully enacted American social, environmental, and labor regulation to review and reversal by appeals panels dominated by foreigners and unaccountable to voters, using procedures that violate American conventions of due process. When the goal is corporate, it's convenient to waive cherished sovereignty.

And on the human-rights front, the administration's lawyers actually contended that domestic law did not apply at Guantanamo Bay because it was a sovereign part of Cuba. This must have come as a hilarious surprise to Fidel Castro.

We need a single standard on human rights and on sovereignty, the same one for America and for the world, the same one for citizens and for visitors, the same one for corporations and for humans. Our current leaders shamelessly invoke every American icon, from George Washington onward, while betraying their highest principles -- and ours.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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