Guantanamo BayYear after year, the U.S. State Department issues an annual report that criticizes the Cuban government for detaining some of its citizens in prison indefinitely, without charging them with crimes or bringing them to trial.

But let's be fair. This criticism applies only to a specific part of Cuba - the 99.9% of the island that is under the control of the Cuban government. It doesn't apply to the 0.1% of Cuban sovereign territory that is under the control of the United States - Guantanamo Bay - where, for the last decade, the U.S. government has been detaining people in prison indefinitely, without charging them with crimes or bringing them to trial.

The existing prisoners at Guantanamo are non-Americans who are suspected of being terrorists or of aiding terrorists, although some probably did little more than watch movies about terrorists or look up the word "terrorist" in a dictionary. Now, the 2012 U.S. military spending bill that is poised to become law will let Washington expand the profile of prisoners to include U.S. citizens arrested within the United States who have some presumed connection with terrorism.

If the United States believes Cuba is violating human rights by detaining people without charge or trial, it can only be for one reason: Washington considers the imprisoned Cubans to be human beings with a fundamental right to not be treated this way. So, if the United States does not believe it violates human rights itself when it treats people that way at Guantanamo, what are we supposed to conclude? That the prisoners there don't have the same fundamental right? That they are something other than human?

If this seems absurd, look at it another way: the U.S. government is giving itself the legal authority to abandon the application of human rights law on the basis of what a person is, and to apply it instead on the basis of what a person does. Or - more accurately - on the basis of what a person is suspected of doing,  which actually may never be known if the person is not charged or tried.

This suspicion will necessarily come from the security and law enforcement officials who handle the cases that result in people being sent to Guantanamo as presumed terrorists. Thus, it may fall to a relatively small number of people - each with a personal mix of professionalism, ethics, beliefs, and perspectives - to assess the evidence and determine whether or not an individual is covered by human rights law.

This signals a major turning point in the way human rights are perceived by a nation that has set itself up as an international arbiter of them. It signals that the rules of the game are changing.

The universality of human rights - the fact that everyone has them simply by existing - may be on the verge of being rolled back from the way the United States and other nations saw it 63 years ago, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set in motion an expanding framework of global conventions that have protected the lives and conditions of people to this day.

It was another U.S. military spending bill - the one for 1902 - that led to the lease agreement with Cuba that gave the United States jurisdictional rights at Guantanamo Bay. Because of the territory's unusual legal status, it has been a laboratory for human rights and other laws ever since. The new law is bound to reaffirm Guantanamo's role in this respect by generating new legal challenges, and these may well steer the direction of human rights concepts in the years ahead.

(Photo © Andres Leighton/AP)