Thursday, June 09, 2005

More thoughts on Nick Cohen and Amnesty International

Nick Cohen, in a column I have already discussed here and here, complained about Amnesty International's use of the term "gulag" to describe Guananamo Bay and the USA's other facilities for detaining suspected terrorists around the world.

He wrote:

ever since [Irene] Khan took over, I've had an uneasy feeling that it is losing universal principles and treating the abuse of rights by the United States as worse than similar or more grotesque abuses by others. That feeling transformed into a certainty last week when Amnesty described Guantanamo Bay as the 'gulag of our times'.

By all means, Amnesty and everyone else should loudly deplore America's failure to treat prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But when they've finished, they should check the figures. If they exclude the millions who died of starvation, disease and exhaustion, they will find that 776,098 prisoners were murdered in summary executions in the gulag between 1930 and 1953. At Guantanamo Bay, no one has died of starvation, disease or exhaustion and no prisoners have been executed. Not one. If Amnesty's American obsession prevents it from seeing the worst crimes of the 20th century for what they are, how will it sound the alarm about the worst of the 21st?

It is hard to disagree with any of this, but two points are worth making in reply.

The first is made by Ted Barlow in his open letter to New Republic magazine on the Crooked Timber blog. In the PS he writes:
You can imagine a world in which the term “gulag” had not been used in that speech. In that world, do you imagine that the Amnesty report would have set off a serious effort on the part of the Bush Administration to correct its abuses? Or do you think that they would find another excuse- any excuse- to belittle and ignore the report? The question answers itself, doesn’t it?
The second was made by Cohen himself. In a posting made in January this year I quoted him as saying:
A few months ago, I shared a platform with Sion Simon, a new Labour cheerleader. I had a go at the government's assault on trial by jury, and his instant response was: "Nick Cohen thinks Blair's Hitler." I pointed out that I thought nothing of the sort, and asked if all criticism of new Labour's record would be illegitimate until the day the Cabinet dressed in black leather and invaded Poland.
Equally, Bush's America does not have to be as bad as Stalin's USSR for criticism of it to be legitimate.

The real idiocy in Irene Khan's comments (quoted by Cohen and included in my first posting on the subject) was her failure to understand that extending liberty is key to fighting poverty and ignorance, not a destraction from it.

Which brings us back to my favourite quotation about Karl Popper from Bryan Magee.

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