IT'S ALWAYS SAD when a solid, trustworthy institution loses its bearings and joins in the partisan fracas that nowadays passes for political discourse. It's particularly sad when the institution is Amnesty International, which for more than 40 years has been a tough, single-minded defender of political prisoners around the world and a scourge of left- and right-wing dictators alike. True, Amnesty continues to keep track of the world's political prisoners, as it has always done, and its reports remain a vital source of human rights information. But lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world's dictators but for the United States.
That vitriol reached a new level this week when, at a news conference held to mark the publication of Amnesty's annual report, the organization's secretary general, Irene Khan, called the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the "gulag of our times." In her written introduction to the report, Ms. Khan also mentioned only two countries at length: Sudan and the United States, the "unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power," which "thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights."
Like Amnesty, we, too, have written extensively about U.S. prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We have done so not only because the phenomenon is disturbing in its own right but also because it gives undemocratic regimes around the world an excuse to justify their own use of torture and indefinite detention and because it damages the U.S. government's ability to promote human rights.
But we draw the line at the use of the word "gulag" or at the implication that the United States has somehow become the modern equivalent of Stalin's Soviet Union. Guantanamo Bay is an ad hoc creation, designed to contain captured enemy combatants in wartime. Abuses there -- including new evidence of desecrating the Koran -- have been investigated and discussed by the FBI, the press and, to a still limited extent, the military. The Soviet gulag, by contrast, was a massive forced labor complex consisting of thousands of concentration camps and hundreds of exile villages through which more than 20 million people passed during Stalin's lifetime and whose existence was not acknowledged until after his death. Its modern equivalent is not Guantanamo Bay, but the prisons of Cuba, where Amnesty itself says a new generation of prisoners of conscience reside; or the labor camps of North Korea, which were set up on Stalinist lines; or China's laogai , the true size of which isn't even known; or, until recently, the prisons of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Worrying about the use of a word may seem like mere semantics, but it is not. Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies. It also gives the administration another excuse to dismiss valid objections to its policies as "hysterical."