The UN’s Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez is once again criticizing the Obama administration over its handling of the accused Wikileaker Bradly Manning’s detention.  Mendez has been told that he can interview Bradley Manning, who is in a military prison in Kansas, but that his conversation would be monitored by prison authorities.  This violates longstanding rules relating to the unfettered access of prisoners by UN human rights officials.

As I have said before, only part of the problem is the allegedly cruel conditions under which Manning was held. The bigger issue is the fact that in such a high profile case like this, the United States seems to be backing away from its obligations under international law its responsibilities as  UN member state.

Ultimately, this is an issue way bigger than the Bradley Manning case. The UN human rights system depends on the cooperation of member states; if a government puts up onerous conditions or obstacles before a special rapporteur, a human rights investigator cannot do his or her job. When a leading advocate for human rights like the United States bends the rules from time to time, it undermines the whole human rights apparatus.

Consider this: Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized an investigation into alleged human rights abuses stemming from the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters. The United States pushed hard for this resolution–and rightly so. So far, though, Syrian authorities have not been allowed to enter Syria. But what if Damascus relented on its opposition to admitting the UN investigators, but only on the condition that all of their interviews are monitored by government minders?

Obviously such conditions would not make the investigation credible.  The United States should be leading by example. Instead, the Obama administration seems to want it both ways: unfettered access for human rights monitors abroad while placing restrictions on them at home.

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