This op-ed originally appeared on Townhall.com on August 14, 2008
Last week saw three human rights episodes play out in Russia, China and the United States. These events show us how America stacks up against the rest of the world.
This past week the world saw the resurgent danger of the old Soviet Union in the modern Russian Federation. Russian military forces invaded the sovereign neighboring nation of Georgia. Although Russia claims to be aiding people in the disputed Georgian province of South Ossetia, the reality is that covert Russian agents have been fomenting upheaval, and Russia had been moving forces into place for this invasion.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is taking Russia back to an autocratic government. Political opponents are being jailed, critics silenced, strategic assets seized. The bear has returned.
Putin is also using this to send a message. His message to Europe is that the Russian bear will maul any who oppose it.
Senator John McCain was right to criticize President Bush’s 2001 claim to have looked into Putin’s soul and seen a friend. As Mr. McCain says, when he looks at Mr. Putin he sees three letters: KGB.
We saw a quieter version of authoritarian oppression in China. The White House press corps was detained for several hours at the Beijing airport, missing President Bush’s first event. The Chinese government wanted to inspect every piece of reporters’ equipment. The action reinforced that China has no concept of a free press with the right to report whatever it finds.
This same behavior was seen by China’s refusing to grant entry to the games for an American athlete who was an outspoken advocate of human rights, and also in expelling three Americans for speaking on human rights in Tiananmen Square. All this of course justifies President Bush’s remarks in Taiwan before the games, condemning China’s human rights abuses.
On a less prominent note, we see how China tried to rid Beijing of smog to provide nice visuals during the games: Just shut down the private sector. The Chinese government ordered factories closed, banned millions of people from driving, and took other steps to create a picture-perfect setting. How would the American people (and press) react to our government essentially ordering millions of people temporarily out of work? The protests would be deafening, and of course our Constitution would not allow it.
Yet in a story that has already been forgotten, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to human rights last week in the Hamdan trial. A military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay acquitted Salim Hamdan of one of the two charges against him (a conspiracy charge) and in convicting him of supporting terrorism they gave him less than six years instead of life in prison. The military judge, a Navy captain, then counted time served; Hamdan could thus go free early next year.
The media refused to carry the most obvious point of that story: military tribunals work. These are not show trials; Hamdan beat one charge, and could be out of prison soon. Although the media usually didn’t mention anything beyond this man being Osama bin Laden’s driver, Hamdan had two surface-to-air missiles in his car trunk that he was transporting across an international border when he was arrested. This fellow may well be a very bad actor.
Yet when freedom’s at stake, America errs on the side of liberty and leniency. In Russia or China, Hamdan would either be imprisoned for life (without a trial) or simply executed.
This outcome was not ordered by the Supreme Court. It did not happen in a habeas petition, and was not from a civilian federal judge. This was a military court, set up by Congress pursuant to requests from President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, held at Gitmo.
Serving as U.S. ambassador for human rights to the United Nations, I traveled to dozens of countries. Russia and China show how much of the world works, with human rights abuses that are either violent and deadly, or subdued but still oppressive. America, by contrast, is the light. Nowhere else in the world will you find a country of such vast power with such formidable warriors where our leaders are willing to fight to protect the innocent, where the government nonetheless shows restraint and a commitment to just treatment even at risk to ourselves.
China and Russia showed Americans how human rights and human lives can be easily discarded by would-be super powers. The actions of these two nations make complaints about Gitmo seem overblown, but don’t expect the left to admit it.