Restoring America’s Moral Authority: A 10-Point Plan of Action

As the nations of the world emerged from the devastation of the Second World War, they looked to America for moral leadership. The U.S. heeded the call, playing a pivotal role in codifying international norms for the protection of human rights—from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the 1949 Geneva Conventions—and in creating permanent institutions to uphold those norms and punish those who violate them.

Today, America’s moral authority lies in ruins. The Bush administration’s unilateralist policies and contempt for the law have  weakened the international system and the standards of civilized conduct which our nation did so much to put in place.  The U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay is a betrayal of everything America fought for 60 years ago, which is why the Center for American Progress Action Fund has joined with leading human rights, civil liberties and religious organizations to urge congressional leaders to adopt a 10-point plan for restoring America’s moral authority.

Our plan, detailed below, directly addresses the sweeping authority claimed by the president  in the wake of 9/11. The president believes he can enhance our nation’s security by detaining prisoners indefinitely without charge, subjecting them to abusive interrogation and cruel conditions of confinement, evading the prohibition on torture through “extraordinary rendition,” and conducting trials that fail to comport with American standards of due process.

 

He’s wrong. Rather than making America and the world safer, these policies have had the opposite effect, handing our adversaries a series of propaganda victories and estranging us even from our closest allies.

The response of Congress and the courts has been equivocal at best. Over administration objections, Congress enacted the McCain amendment banning torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and the Supreme Court issued forceful rulings reining in Executive Branch excesses in Rasul v. Bush and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

Yet Congress responded to the Hamdan decision by passing the Military Commissions Act, which authorizes the president to detain individuals who are not engaged in hostilities against the U.S. as unlawful combatants, authorizes trials before military commissions that permit the use of evidence obtained through coercion, and strips Guantánamo detainees of the right to challenge their detentions under the ancient writ of habeas corpus.

On February 20, 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a two-to-one decision in Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. United States, upholding the habeas-stripping provisions of the MCA. The ruling will certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court and, one hopes, reversed. But given the recent changes in the makeup of the Court, that outcome is by no means assured.

Congress can and must act now to correct the problems it created and restore America’s moral authority. The Center for American Progress Action Fund and its allies call on Congress to:

  • Restore habeas corpus for detainees seeking to challenge the basis for their detention.
  • Stop the outsourcing of torture through extraordinary rendition.
  • Abolish secret CIA detention centers.
  • Hold accountable individuals who engage in human rights abuses.
  • Ensure that trials of detainees meet recognized standards of fairness and integrity.
  • Clarify that the MCA categorically prohibits abusive interrogations.
  • Close the detention facility at Guantánamo.
  • Ensure that civilians are not unlawfully subjected to trials before military commissions.
  • Protect victims of persecution from being treated as terrorists.
  • End indefinite detention without charge.

These 10 measures would promote respect for human rights and the rule of law at home and abroad. They would strengthen America’s ability to conduct an effective counterterrorism policy by ensuring that the U.S. is detaining only those who ought to be detained, treating them as we would wish captured Americans to be treated, and trying them in a manner that is fair and transparent so that the verdicts will be credible and deserving of international respect.

Two bills pending before the Senate incorporate a number of these elements. The first bill, S. 185, authored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), would restore habeas corpus for detainees held by the United States.

The second bill, S. 576, introduced by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), is more sweeping. This legislation would restore habeas corpus, narrow the definition of unlawful enemy combatant to individuals who directly participate in hostilities against the U. S. and are not lawful combatants, and bar information gained through coercion from being introduced as evidence in trials.

In addition, the Dodd bill would empower military judges to exclude hearsay evidence they deem to be unreliable, authorize the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to review decisions by the military commissions, limit the authority of the president to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and make that authority subject to congressional and judicial oversight. Dodd’s legislation also would provide for expedited judicial review of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to determine the constitutionality of its provisions.

We urge Congress to move swiftly to restore the fundamental protections for human rights that are outlined in our 10-point plan so that our nation can begin to reclaim its moral authority and repair the rule of law on which our safety and security depend.