The United States has been able to press forward on human rights around the world despite the “stain” left by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, the recently retired State Department human rights chief said in an interview.
Lorne Craner, who left the government last month after three years as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said he initially feared that the Iraqi prison abuses “would be thrown back in our faces” every time U.S. officials tried to spotlight human rights problems in other countries.
“That didn’t happen largely because we, ourselves, recognized and admitted the problems and called our own top officials to account,” Mr. Craner said.
The government of Sudan “briefly tried to use Abu Ghraib against us when we were pressing them over [the humanitarian crisis in] Darfur,” he said. “But that lasted only about a day because there was no resonance for the argument in Europe or Africa that we should stop speaking up for human rights.
“Abu Ghraib will always be a stain on our record, and properly so, but because of the way we have held ourselves to account, it has not stopped us from being effective,” he said.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Mr. Craner touched on problem spots and opportunities that arose during his tenure, which began just months before the September 11 attacks.
Many human rights groups had feared that the demand for security after September 11 would overshadow the traditional U.S. role of promoting human rights and democracy around the world.
But Mr. Craner argued that the global war on terrorism – and the need to work with a slate of new allies – actually gave him greater scope and more targets of opportunity.
“When I took the job, it never occurred to me that I might be going to Central Asia. It wasn’t even on our radar screen,” he said.
“On September 12, it was already clear which countries would become more important to us, and I started pulling out every bit of information we had on Uzbekistan and other front-line states to Afghanistan.”
Mr. Craner wound up visiting Uzbekistan four times, pressing the government of President Islam Karimov on issues such as the treatment of prisoners and the repression of political opponents.
The Bush administration, to the surprise of many in the human rights community, froze some direct-aid programs to Uzbekistan in July, despite the country’s critical help as a staging base for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
“I heard a lot of people say this had to be a tough decision for us, but it really wasn’t,” Mr. Craner said. “The Uzbek government had made promises that we did not feel it had kept. It wasn’t even a close call.”
He said the global war on terrorism also has pushed human rights and democracy to the center of the U.S. agenda in the Middle East in a way that they had not been for more than 50 years. Despite the uncertainties in Iraq, Mr. Craner said governments across the region are responding to pressure at home and from Washington to open up.
“When my predecessors traveled to countries like Algeria and Tunisia to talk about human rights, they were effectively muzzled,” he said. “When I went to those countries, I not only met with the leaders, but made a point of raising my issues with the media.”
T. Kumar, Asian advocacy director for Amnesty International, said Mr. Craner deserved credit for pressing human rights causes at a time when many feared the United States would retreat.
“Even in China, where we needed their help on Iraq, Afghanistan and other issues, he never eased up on his criticisms,” Mr. Kumar said.
“It was a very difficult environment after September 11 to be pressing the human rights issue, but from our perspective he did it very well.”Top