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Bradley Manning is a hero.
Nobody else has put so much classified evidence about the reality of America’s wars in the public domain. The “Collateral Murder” video which he released to WikiLeaks should be shown at the beginning of every academic course on international relations. It captures the nonchalance with which the world’s most powerful army kills and maims civilians.
Once the soldiers recorded in it notice that they have injured a child, they react as if they have done nothing more sinister than step on someone’s toes. “Well, it’s their own fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one voice says. The line encapsulates the amoral nature of US aggression. Victims of state-sponsored violence are treated as if they had it coming.
Only the naive could expect the US authorities to treat Manning leniently. But what about here in Europe? Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is a fearless defender of human rights – when it suits her. Happy to champion political prisoners in Iran and Ukraine, she is prepared to overlook persecution when it is carried out with the approval of her bosom buddies in Washington.
A search on Ashton’s website indicates that she has not issued a single statement on Manning’s incarceration. I asked her spokesman to explain this silence; he did not respond. Members of the European Parliament who have tried to solicit her views on this matter haven’t fared much better. Last year, Ashton answered a parliamentary question about an investigation by Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, which concluded that the treatment of Manning was “cruel and inhuman”. Ashton noted that the Méndez report highlighted “potential violations of rights” before making a vague commitment that the EU would “seek clarification” from the US authorities on “what measures they intend to take”.
Her stance was both misleading and cowardly. Méndez stated clearly that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity, as well as of his presumption of innocence”. The solitary confinement forced on Manning, therefore, involved a definite abuse of his rights – not a “potential” abuse as Ashton hinted.
Manning has been in detention for three years now, without having been convicted of any crime. It is almost impossible to foresee his trial – scheduled to begin next month – being in any way fair. Barack Obama has already declared him guilty by saying on video that “he broke the law” and implying that he deserves to be punished.
In a personal statement delivered at a pre-trial hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland, earlier this year, Manning said that he gave a trove of documents to WikiLeaks because he wished to “spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general”. Manning confessed to being alarmed by the “bloodlust” of the aerial weapons team on the “Collateral Murder” video and expressed his hope that the public would be just as disgusted.
There is little doubt that Manning has been imprisoned because of his sincerely-held political beliefs. So it is baffling that Amnesty International has so far declined to consider him a prisoner of conscience and to undertake a major campaign for his release.
Amnesty has told the Canadian blogger Joe Emersberger that it cannot deem Manning to be a prisoner of conscience until it has verified if he released the information in a “responsible manner”. I contacted Amnesty to check if Emersberger had accurately reflected its position but received no reply. Assuming that Emersberger is correct – and I’ve no reason to suspect he is not – Amnesty should specify what it means by “responsible”.
By the standards of the US authorities, Manning did not behave responsibly. But Amnesty is supposed to be an independent watchdog, not a mouthpiece for the US military. The very first session of the UN’s General Assembly in 1949 formally recognised that “freedom of information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”. Manning took a great risk to uphold that freedom. Amnesty should be supporting him by every means possible, not quibbling over whether he has respected the terms of his employment contract.
I have been involved with Amnesty since I was 15-years-old. Until recently, I’ve been convinced that it fights oppression regardless of where it occurs or who is involved. Sadly, an event held to coincide with NATO’s 2012 summit in Chicago made me have second thoughts.
Promotional material for an Amnesty conference on the situation of women in Afghanistan bore the slogan “NATO: Keep the Progress Going”. The inference that the alliance was waging a feminist war must have delighted NATO’s spindoctors.
For most of last year, Amnesty’s US office was headed by Suzanne Nossel, who had just finished serving as a deputy assistant secretary of state under Hillary Clinton. It is unthinkable that Amnesty would chose a senior aide to Robert Mugabe as director of its Zimbabwe team – unless that aide had renounced Mugabe first. Nossel, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t speak out against how Clinton had cosied up to dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Why on earth did Amnesty hire her?
Bradley Manning has been let down by those who claim to defend human rights. The silence over his treatment must be broken.
David Cronin’s book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War will be published by Pluto Press in August (www.plutobooks.com).
A version of this article was first published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu).