From Dresden to Abu Ghraib: Western leaders get away with murder

Democracy's Blameless Leaders.
Neil Mitchell examines how leaders in democracies manage the blame for the abuse and the killing of civilians

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Citing the U.S., U.K. and Israel as prime examples of democratic states infringing human rights, Democracy's Blameless Leaders delves into the evasion of accountability and responsibility for human rights violations by placing leaders of liberal democracy at the helm of this insightful treatise.

Neil James Mitchell expounds upon the contradictions spouted by leaders of democratic states, where discourse regarding atrocities is manipulated in an attempt to appease public sentiment. In the shift from opportune acknowledgement to blatant conventional rhetoric, leaders detach themselves from their citizens, in a bid to expose and exacerbate popular sentiment with regard to national security. In doing so, leaders are in a position to stifle public outcry, relegating principles to a web of opportunism.

The book describes the manner in which leaders evade responsibility for human rights violations, whilst maintaining the facade of institutional justice. Whilst accountability is constantly referred to in relation to democracy, leaders have developed techniques which allow them to displace blame within lower echelons of power. Mitchell identifies these processes as denial, delay, delegation and diversion. In applying these processes, democratic leaders prepare a context for citizens through which to view violations -- accountability is denied either by holding no one responsible for atrocities, or else by presenting an argument which justifies atrocities on the premise of protecting human rights.

The ramifications of such justifications are significant. In recent history abuse has been generally categorized under the banner of "enhanced interrogation techniques." This evasive manner of assuming responsibility has further denigrated human rights -- allowing violations to happen in order to protect "other" human rights is undemocratic. President George W. Bush's statements about the U.S. being a "nation of law" were an allowance for further manipulation. The declared War on Terror was the pretext for pre-emptive strikes and further military intervention. Detainees were described as "defiant and evasive" -- an identity which further justified the use of torture in Abu Ghraib and other secret prisons. The lack of any investigation regarding civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq presents another failure of accountability -- the disregard of testimony, narrative and memory on behalf of the victims.

Mitchell points out that few leaders have been brought to justice for human rights violations however, he points out that in contemporary politics the focus has shifted to leaders of states whose international support is minimal. Thus, international justice has become a farce in which violators either end up scapegoats of justice, or else benefit from impunity. Either way, the international community has also conspired to manipulate accountability, following the path of domestic law.

Legal accountability within liberal democracies indulging in torture and abuse has also been corrupted to ensure the survival of political power. In the Abu Ghraib scandal, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld denied any link between government policies and torture. Despite memos detailing torture techniques, Rumsfeld's insistence that torture was a deviance from interrogation practices allowed him to shift blame onto individual soldiers who testified that torture was one of their directives. A pattern of "accountability" emerges -- political leaders are protected by shifting responsibility to lower power rungs, consolidating governance which willingly assimilates to dictatorship practices.

Mitchell offers some valid alternatives to combating the consequences of responsibility evasion. However, this necessitates rethinking the dynamics of democracy. An insight into democracy practices by powerful states bear similarities with dictatorships regarding human rights violations. Any vital change in policies and practices ultimately need to be endorsed by leaders -- a democracy which shuns national and international memory is already shrouded within the oblivion brought about by denial of responsibility.Ramona Wadi

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Her articles, interviews and book reviews have been published in Upside Down World, LSE Politics and Policy, Toward Freedom, and Irish Left Review.

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