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Friday, May. 04, 2001

The issue of American involvement in human rights abuses abroad has recently arisen in the context of examining former Senator Bob Kerrey's actions in Vietnam. But the U.S. role in Cold War abuses, a topic raised by the public discussion of Kerrey's conduct, demands a broader and more systematic examination.

Bob Kerrey's Memories of Vietnam

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an account of the killing of at least thirteen unarmed Vietnamese civilians – women and children – by a Navy commando team led by then-Lieutenant Bob Kerrey. Kerrey, who later came to national prominence as a senator, says that his memory of the incident is faulty. While acknowledging that he cannot remember every detail of what occurred, he claims that the killings were carried out in self-defense.

But a Vietnamese woman who says she witnessed the killings remembers a very different set of events. In her account, which was supported by a member of Kerrey's commando team, the team rounded up the civilians and purposefully slaughtered them.

The killings occurred in Thanh Phong, an isolated Vietnamese hamlet, on February 25, 1969. For more than thirty years, Kerrey never mentioned them publicly. Only after having been confronted with pages of incriminating documents, the fruits of a reporter's three-month review of classified and unclassified records from the Navy's archives, was he spurred to set forth his version of events.

Kerrey is not the only former political figure whose wartime conduct has recently come under critical scrutiny. Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam, was just the subject of a two-part series in Harper's that sets out, in some detail, the case for prosecuting him as a war criminal. The article describes, among Kissinger's many misdeeds, cases "in which the civilian population [in Vietnam] was deliberately exposed to indiscriminate lethal force, in which the customary laws of war and neutrality were violated, and in which conscious lies had to be told in order to conceal these facts and others."

These crimes differ markedly from the atrocities that Kerrey is alleged to have committed, both in their vast scale and in their coldly calculated nature. While deliberately killing civilians in a single incident is a war crime, the systematic killing of many thousands over a period of years is a crime against humanity. Whatever logistical difficulties may hinder the task of investigating the allegations against Kerrey, the larger question of establishing the record about U.S. involvement in Vietnam demands more sustained attention.

The Role of Truth Commissions

In the aftermath of periods of violence and repression, countries have frequently established official truth commissions to investigate the facts about the human rights abuses that were committed. Indeed, it has become an almost reflexive step for transitional governments to set up truth commissions as part of the process of reestablishing democracy and the rule of law. When they are made up of respected, independent commissioners, equipped with a full panoply of legal powers, such commissions can make an important contribution.

The immediate goal of such commissions is to recover the truth about past injustices – to create a firm historical record of what happened, and to whom. But they can serve other purposes as well, including laying the groundwork for the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of abuses and the monetary compensation of the victims. Theoretically (if unrealistically), they also offer some hope of reconciling victims and perpetrators, or at least of helping to mend sharply polarized societies. The underlying idea is that clarifying the truth about past abuses, and acknowledging the wrongs that occurred, is a necessary prerequisite to societal healing.

To date, truth commissions have focused on atrocities occurring within a given country, and have largely been limited to documenting the role of that country's nationals in committing them. Yet, as the Vietnam example suggests, outside countries have played a critical role in the majority of armed conflicts over the past few decades, including those characterized by the most serious rights violations. Accordingly, and for many of the same reasons that justify truth commissions in the national context, the role of outside governments also demands examination.

Examining Outside Governments

A strong case can be made for reviewing the Cold War maneuvering of the then-Soviet Union, France, Cuba, and South Africa, among others, but surely the United States must be included on any short list of countries meriting scrutiny. Whether as military partner, financial backer, or behind-the-scenes manipulator, the United States has had some degree of involvement with many of the most abusive governments of the post-W.W. II era. In some cases, like Vietnam, the U.S. is directly implicated in atrocities. In many more, including Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador, it is U.S. support for abusive forces that should be examined.

The clandestine nature of the U.S. role in many such settings is another factor that militates in favor of some sort of truth-telling exercise. Since the American public would not have countenanced open and notorious U.S. involvement in human rights crimes, the U.S. frequently engaged in covert operations, providing material and logistical support for abusive allies.

With the Cold War having ended, and the need for secrecy having dissipated along with it (putting aside the question of whether such secrecy was ever justified), it is high time that the United States engage in some official truth-telling. Critical to such an effort would be a close review of classified military and intelligence records, and the taking of testimony, under oath, of political and military leaders responsible for formulating and implementing U.S. foreign policy.

The Need for Truth Commissions

To some extent, the U.S. has already embarked on this effort by declassifying thousands of pages of official documents. In recent years, declassified records have, for example, revealed important information about the U.S. role in undermining Chile's democracy and in supporting dictator Augusto Pinochet. But much remains to be done before the full historical record of U.S. activities in Latin America and elsewhere is known.

Truth and reconciliation are not only of value within a society, they are also worth seeking in international relations. As the Vietnam example highlights, the past is often unclear, shrouded in secrecy and layers of denial, and, in many instances, still hotly disputed. But even if the full truth about past abuses is impossible to ascertain, the effort to do so is a necessary one.

A serious and exhaustive review of the U.S. role in Cold War abuses around the world would go far toward fostering reconciliation with the victims, and might even spark efforts to achieve justice. Henry Kissinger, go find yourself a lawyer.

Joanne Mariner, a FindLaw columnist, is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. She has previously written about prosecuting Pinochet and Milosevic in columns that can be found in's archive. The views expressed in her columns are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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