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Let Gonzales Explain Views On Human Rights


November 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

President Bush's nomination of Alberto Gonzales as the country's highest-ranking law-enforcement officer is truly a historic moment for Hispanics. We ought to be proud that we finally possess the political clout to demand attention from Republicans and Democrats alike. Indeed, there is much in Gonzales' background that will be appealing to Hispanics of all political persuasions.

On a personal level, he and I have much in common. His father has a second-grade education, while my dad finished the fourth grade. His mother didn't finish high school; neither did mine. He grew up in a two-bedroom house in Houston; I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in New York and later in New Jersey. His parents emigrated from Mexico; mine are from Puerto Rico. He beat all the odds to get into Rice and Harvard, while I was a scholarship student at Princeton and Stanford.

Notwithstanding Gonzales' impressive background and the American Dream he epitomizes, there are some important questions that demand answers.

Troubling statements

First, I should note that as a matter of policy, my own organization has demanded answers to certain questions, even though we don't take positions on elections or political appointments. But as an organization that has fought more than 80 years for the rights of immigrants and others, we are asking the Senate to engage in a full and thorough review of Gonzales' positions. Hispanics -- indeed all Americans -- should demand explanations for some very troubling statements attributed to Gonzales on human rights and civil liberties.

As White House counsel, Gonzales advised President Bush in a controversial Jan. 25, 2002, memorandum that the rules protecting prisoners of war were ''quaint'' and ''obsolete.'' The memo to Bush on the Geneva Conventions addressed an issue that Secretary of State Colin Powell had asked the White House to consider: whether individuals apprehended in the Afghanistan conflict should be awarded human-rights protections under international law.

Awaiting confirmation

Powell apparently believed that prisoners detained by the United States should be afforded the legal protections of the Geneva Conventions. It also appears that Gonzales was the recipient of several other (now disavowed) memos that condoned the use of torture and the indefinite detention of prisoners apprehended in Afghanistan. Whether or not Gonzales approved the analyses of the men who wrote those memos (John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee) remains to be seen in the coming confirmation process.

Many Hispanics -- indeed many Americans -- may be asking themselves, Why should I care about the Geneva Conventions and the possible torture of foreigners?

The answer is simple: With so many Americans now serving in Iraq (10 percent of them Hispanic, according to government statistics), the only assurance that our own men and women in uniform will be afforded due process and have their human rights respected if they are captured by the enemy is the Geneva Conventions. That's probably why Powell was encouraging Gonzales to reassess his position.

In addition, America is known the world over for its belief in and commitment to human rights. Those are core American values for Republicans and Democrats alike. Hispanics in particular understand that the road to securing our human and civil rights has been a long one -- and as a group that has suffered discrimination and injustice, we have to fight for those values for all people.

Do not prejudge him

Gonzales will have an opportunity to explain his positions on these issues to fellow Hispanics and the American public during his Senate confirmation process. We ought not to prejudge his answers or candidacy -- either positively or negatively -- but we should demand clear answers on whether he stands by his 2002 memo and whether he believes that the memos he received about torture, detention and interrogation were correct.

Gonzales deserves an opportunity to answer questions about his thoughts and positions with minimal interference from White House advisors. After all, it's his reputation that's on the line. And the Senate must be encouraged to conduct a full and thorough review of Gonzales' positions.

Our democracy will be all the stronger if we engage in that process.

As my abuela used to tell me whenever I wanted to avoid her tough questions, ''Nene, no se puede tapar el cielo con la mano.'' (``My son, you can't cover the sky with your hand.'') And abuela was always right.


Anthony Romero is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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