Human rights already a casualty in war on terrorism
October 25, 2001
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai, China, President Bush again pressed world leaders to join the United States in its campaign against terrorism. But he also signaled that repression of minorities and of legitimate dissent should have no place in such a campaign.
Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush said that "it's important to distinguish between those who pursue legitimate political aspirations and terrorists." In another speech, he added, "No government should use our war against terrorism as an excuse to persecute minorities within their borders."
This is a vital clarification, for both moral and strategic reasons. But the administration still needs to match its words with actions.
Just after the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration sent Congress a sweeping proposal to end all congressional restrictions on U.S. military sales to countries deemed "important to the U.S. effort to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism." When faced by hostile reactions from lawmakers, the White House retreated, but it sent the wrong message to other countries.
Putin immediately sought to test the new limits, pointing to alleged links between Osama bin Laden and rebels in Chechnya, and declaring that the United States and Russia now have "a common foe." Putin pledged to assist the U.S.-led campaign but added that the full extent of cooperation "will directly depend on the general level and quality of our relations with these countries and on mutual understanding in the sphere of fighting international terrorism." The unmistakable implication was that Russia expected acquiescence in its war in Chechnya, where it continues to commit atrocities.
Others followed Putin's lead. China said that the United States should give its "support and understanding in (China's) fight against terrorists and separatists" -- a reference to Tibet, Taiwan and the Muslim region of Xinjiang, where China is engaged in a campaign of arrests and summary executions.
During her visit to Washington, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri sought to justify Jakarta's crackdown in Aceh, Irian Jaya and other regions as a campaign against "terrorists and separatists."
In Malaysia, authorities seized the opportunity to justify their Internal Security Act, which restricts peaceful dissent.
Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Abeid lashed out against the United States and Britain for "calling on us to give these terrorists their 'human rights,'" referring to criticism of torture and unfair trials. "After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia," he said, "maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt's own fight against terror as their new model."
Bush's new message needs to be pressed most in Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, where U.S. troops are now supporting operations in Afghanistan. This region faces a genuine threat from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group that has been linked to bin Laden. The country is also home to a repressive Soviet-style dictatorship that could be contributing to the very problems the United States is trying to confront.
Last week, Ravshan Haidov, who was detained on suspicion of distributing leaflets of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, died in police custody, the latest victim in Uzbekistan's vicious crackdown on dissidents and Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls.
If the Uzbek government doesn't clean up its act, the United States could be seen as aligning itself with a government that tortures nonviolent Muslims to death in the name of fighting terrorism. Such practices, like Russia's attacks on civilians in Chechnya, make it harder for the United States to argue that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam.
Security and justice are mutually reinforcing goals that ultimately depend upon the promotion of rights and freedom for all people. The United States should lead by example at home and challenge abuses abroad, by both friend and foe.
Reed Brody is advocacy director of Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org), based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.