The Golden Rule of International Human Rights
Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte
November 22, 2006
The news of Orlando citizen Thuong Nguyen "Cuc" Foshee's release from a Vietnamese prison is welcomed by everyone who has known of her case: detained without trial for some time, and only this month tried in a one-day trial, convicted of "terrorism" and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Her detention in Vietnam captured the interest of a number of people, including Sen. Mel Martinez, who threatened to block a trade agreement with Vietnam if its government did not free Foshee.
Thanks to broad public support -- and in particular the efforts of Martinez -- Foshee's release came on the eve of a visit by President George W. Bush to Vietnam. In no uncertain terms, we registered our strong disapproval of such treatment, and to do so, we cited values we revere as intrinsically American.
The happy outcome of the Foshee case allows us to give some thought to the importance of universal acceptance of international standards of justice. Global law recognizes basic rights such as the right not to be detained over long periods of time without charges, freedom from abusive interrogations, the right to be informed of the charges and the evidence against you, the right of access to family and counsel, the right to be judged by an impartial tribunal. And we should, too.
News of Foshee's trial and release comes at a time when the United States is conducting its own trials, many of them cloaked in the same shadows, away from the reach of international law, that clouded Foshee's case. As The Associated Press reported about proceedings at Guantanamo Bay the very week of Foshee's release:
The U.S. military called no witnesses, withheld evidence from detainees and usually reached a decision within a day as it determined that hundreds of men detained at Guantanamo Bay were "enemy combatants," according to a new report.
The analysis of transcripts and records by two lawyers for Guantanamo detainees, aided by more than two dozen law students, found that hearings that determined whether a prisoner should remain in custody gave the accused little opportunity to contest allegations against him.
"These were not hearings. These were shams," said Mark Denbeaux, an attorney and Seton Hall University law professor who along with his son, Joshua, is the author of the report.
A case like that of Foshee should remind us of how much we value our tradition of freedom and how greatly we respect the principles of due process. The denial of those rights to U.S. citizens arrested in other nations is intolerable to us; so should it be to those our government arrests.
It is from such a perspective that we may be able to appreciate why there has been so much international outrage about recent American behavior on the world stage, including the Patriot Act, the use of secret prisons, the denial of access to prisoners by their families, their lawyers, even the Red Cross/Red Crescent and, most recently, the Military Commissions Act of 2006.
Only an arrogant and imperial nation, the kind of nation that our enemies charge us as being, can continue to condemn in others the very conduct that we are authorizing through Congress.
Perhaps the Golden Rule -- treat others as we would be treated -- does not work in international politics, but we ought not to continue down a path that diverges so sharply from core American values -- the same values that shape international law, and the same values we access and invoke when we oppose cases such as Foshee's in Vietnam.
When we diverge from those values, we quickly find ourselves without a moral basis to criticize when others violate fundamental human rights.
It's time for consistency in our actions. It's time to stay the course of traditional American values, rejecting torture and secret imprisonments as instruments of government and imposing strong measures to discipline those, however highly placed, who depart from these basic principles.
After her release, Foshee said: "Today, I have a greater appreciation of the freedoms Americans enjoy. Life in America, it just doesn't compare to anywhere else." If we can stick to our values, that can be true. Martinez, whose family fled from despotism in Cuba, should understand these issues better than any of us. His elevation to a high position of leadership in the Republican Party may lead to the use of traditional American values to set standards of detention and interrogation.
Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte is president emeritus of Florida State University and a past president of the American Bar Association. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.