The World from Berlin Does America Need a Truth Commission for Torture?

President Barack Obama has shied away from publishing more torture images from Abu Ghraib and is leaning toward continuing the military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. German commentators worry that the new president will be weighed down by his predecessor.


In the early weeks of his presidency, Barack Obama made huge strides in overturning the widely condemned political legacy of George W. Bush. He reached out to Muslims, reversed Washington's myopic environmental policies and began rebuilding frayed relations with US allies in Europe and elsewhere.

US President Barack Obama has come under fire for his decision to resist the release of Abu Ghraib torture photos.
AFP

US President Barack Obama has come under fire for his decision to resist the release of Abu Ghraib torture photos.

This week, though, has shown that some Bush-era stains aren't so easy to wipe away. On the first day of his term, Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo prison and ordered that all hearings underway in the military tribunal system set up by the Bush administration be halted pending review.

The hurdles to integrating the cases into the US justice system ultimately proved too high, though, and Obama administration officials said on Thursday that the president had decided to go on using the military commission system. Though a few changes will be introduced to improve the system's fairness, the decision promises to unleash a new wave of criticism from civil rights groups who have accused Obama of not reversing enough Bush policy.

Obama has also been blasted from the left this week for blocking the release of new images of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Oval Office had initially made noises in favor of releasing a new batch of 2,000 photos, but changed its mind after military commanders warned that the new pictures might endanger US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals," Obama said on Thursday. "In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

The decision has also turned heads in Europe, which so far has managed to avoid much criticism of the new president. Some German commentators on Friday show understanding for Obama's about-face, but others see a need for a "truth commission."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"With his decision to prevent the publication of the photos, Obama is fighting increasingly intense pressure to prosecute the human rights crimes of the Bush administration. That's what the human rights activists with the American Civil Liberties Union are doggedly demanding -- and they are firing ferocious broadsides at a transformed Obama, who promised transparency but is practicing opacity."

"Obama, of course, is not operating in a vacuum. Rather, he is reacting to the intense attacks from Republicans who accused him of treason for making the torture memos public. Still, that the president is abdicating leadership on this question is a tragedy. Because cover-ups and a lack of punishment were never good starting points for a new beginning."

The Financial Times Deutschland argues:

"Obama promised that, under his leadership, politics in the US would be both more ethical and more transparent than ever before. The dark chapters of the Bush era would be illuminated as quickly as possible. But since Obama assumed a position of responsibility, it has become increasingly obvious that he cannot live up to these promises, and with good reason. In security policy, one must constantly balance a variety of evils against one another. The pose of a hero dressed in white often doesn't jive with the responsibility on the shoulders of the resident of the White House."

"It goes without saying that America's recent history must be confronted. But there are compelling ethical reasons for why Obama can't pay any price.... It is understandable that idealistic Obama backers feel deceived. But the most important aspect of the Washington changing of the guard is not that Bush-era methods be denounced. Rather, most important is that they be ended."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Obama will not be able to rid himself of the torture debate. It is already well underway in America … and now Bush's legacy is becoming more of an issue for Obama than he had hoped. First the back-and-forth over the internal memoranda with which Bush's legal team sought to justify torture. Now the wrangling over photos. Coming soon will be a dispute over the unspeakable military tribunals for the Guantanamo detainees. And it will only continue. Muddling through is not an option."

"Obama has to take a painful step. In the name of America, the US has to confront and work through its use of torture and abuse -- much in the same way that other countries have dealt with the dark chapters in their own histories. It would be a correct move to call into existence a committee in the image of the Truth Commission in South Africa. Otherwise the ignominy of his predecessor could weigh on Obama as well."

-- Charles Hawley, 12:30 p.m. CET

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