The U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights abuses was once a beacon of moral authority. Times have changed. Accused in this year's U.S. report of torture and other abuses, countries such as China, Egypt, Syria, Russia and Mexico, in turn, accuse the United States of a glaring double standard. They point to abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion.
Countries named in the U.S. report often defend their human rights records. But the accusations leveled at the United States are a new and embarrassing development. Some of the listed countries, such as South Africa, even argue that their human rights records are superior to that of the United States.
The Bush administration has minimized the severity of U.S. human rights abuses. The White House still insists that the Abu Ghraib scandal was the work of "a few bad apples" and refuses to acknowledge the high-level policy decisions that led to the abuses. It still balks at public disclosure and compliance with congressional requests for documentation. Calls for an independent investigation, including one last month by the American Bar Association, are met with silence.
Now comes word that the CIA is transporting prisoners, some of them senior leaders of al-Qaeda, to secret facilities outside the United States in violation of U.S. and international law. Some have been tortured. Their identities and location have been kept secret from the International Red Cross in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
A recent New York Times story says the classified policy, approved by Bush shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, grants the CIA authority to act without judicial review or even case-by-case approval from the White House.
The White House appears undisturbed that the secret program, called "rendition," is secret no longer. There have been no professions of alarm or promises to investigate. No vows to make certain that prisoners are not being tortured in other countries.
Instead, Attorney General Albert Gonzales shrugged: "Once someone is rendered, we can't fully control what that country might do," he said.
Not so long ago, the United States held foreign regimes accountable for torturing prisoners and for the "disappearances" of detainees. There was a time when America really did set the human rights standard for the rest of the world.
Now, other nations point fingers at America and ask whatever happened to liberty and justice for all.