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(HOST) The United Nations Committee on Torture last week was highly critical of America’s treatment of detainees being held in prisons in Cuba and elsewhere since 9/11. This morning, commentator Barrie Dunsmore notes the significance of this unprecedented development.

(DUNSMORE) In the four decades I have spent covering international news, there has always been one bedrock truth. In the world’s continuing struggle between good guys and bad guys the United States was always one of the good guys.

Of course America wasn’t always one hundred percent pure. Some of its policies turned out to be quite wrong. And American soldiers occasionally did commit atrocities, as in Vietnam. But when such things happened, the American judicial system, the media and the American people could be counted on to ultimately redress these aberrations.

This is a country that is based on the rule of law – that for decades has led the international struggle for human rights. Until now, America could never have been accused of systematically depriving war prisoners of their legal rights – much less of officially condoning the use of torture. But that, in fact, is the meaning of the recent findings of the United Nations panel on torture.

In its report, the U.N. Committee on Torture called on the U.S. to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of detainees have been held for up to four years, almost all without charge or trial. The panel expressed concern over reports of secret detention centers in Eastern Europe where who knows what’s going on. It criticized the CIA practice of sending suspects to countries where torture was likely. And it asked the U.S. to explicitly ban such treatments as water-boarding, sexual humiliation, and the use of dogs – noting that detainees had died in American custody during interrogations involving improper techniques.

The head of the American delegation that went to Geneva to plead the U.S. case, acknowledged that there had been abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Guantanamo. But he called them isolated.

In fact, on the issue of torture, the Bush Administration’s record remains very troubling. So far, no high ranking officers or civilians have been held accountable for the prisoner abuses that followed the administration’s decision to downgrade the Geneva Conventions. And the president himself negated the significance of the recent McCain Amendment which bans all forms of torture, by adding a signing statement to the bill. In effect, his statement says, the commander-in-chief does not feel bound by this law.

I recently had occasion to review some of the transcripts of the Nazi war crimes trials after World War II – and to screen the old movie, Judgment at Nuremberg. In the actual trials, the main defense of most of the Nazi defendants was that they had no idea that such heinous crimes were being committed. However, in the movie, a contrite defendant confesses – If we did not know – it’s because we did not want to know.

I do not mean to equate what happened then with now. The magnitudes are infinitely different. But – in terms of the principle of citizens ultimately bearing some responsibility for what their government does that example is something to think about.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for A-B-C News, now living in Charlotte.

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