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Human Rights Inaction

What is the connection between human rights violations and fostering terrorism?

May 9, 2006

What is the connection between human rights violations and fostering terrorism?

Practice what I preach, not what I do is never terribly persuasive. Yet the U.S. government has been increasingly reduced to that argument in promoting human rights.

Some U.S. allies, especially Britain, are moving in the same disturbing direction, while few other powers are stepping in to fill the breach.

This hypocrisy factor is today a serious threat to the global defense of human rights. Major Western powers historically at the forefront of promoting human rights have never been wholly consistent in their efforts, but even their irregular commitment has been enormously important.

Today, the willingness of some to flout basic human rights standards in the name of combating terrorism has deeply compromised the effectiveness of that commitment. The problem is aggravated by a continuing tendency to subordinate human rights to various economic and political interests.

The U.S. government's use and defense of torture and inhumane treatment played the largest role in undermining Washington's ability to promote human rights.

In the course of 2005, it became indisputable that U.S. mistreatment of detainees reflected not a failure of training, discipline or oversight, but a deliberate policy choice. The problem could not be reduced to a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel.

As evidenced by President George W. Bush's threat to veto a bill opposing "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," the U.S. government's embrace of torture and inhumane treatment began at the top.

This can be seen in Vice President Dick Cheney's lobbying to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from the bill, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's extraordinary claim that the United States is entitled to subject detainees to such treatment so long as the victim is a non-American held overseas.

CIA Director Porter Goss's defense of a notorious form of torture known as water-boarding as a "professional interrogation technique" continues the idea from the top.

Late in 2005, increasing global attention to the U.S. policy of holding some terror suspects as "ghost detainees"— indefinitely, incommunicado, and without charges at undisclosed locations outside of the United States — further damaged U.S. credibility.

Key U.S. allies such as Britain and Canada compounded the leadership problem in 2005 by seeking to undermine certain critical international rights protections.

Britain sought to justify sending terrorist suspects to countries that torture, and Canada worked aggressively to dilute key provisions of a new treaty on enforced disappearances.

These governments, as well as other members of the European Union, also continued to subordinate human rights in their relations with others whom they deemed useful in fighting terrorism or pursuing other goals.

That tendency, coupled with the European Union's continued difficulty in responding firmly to even serious human rights violations, meant that the E.U. did not compensate for this diminished human rights leadership.

Fighting terrorism is central to the human rights cause. Any deliberate attack on civilians is an affront to fundamental values of the human rights movement. And acts of terrorism took an appalling toll in 2005.

In Iraq, attacks on civilians occurred nearly every day, killing thousands, while other terror attacks claimed the lives of civilians in Afghanistan, Britain, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand and the United Kingdom.

But the willingness to flout human rights to fight terrorism is not only illegal and wrong, it is counterproductive.

These human rights violations generate indignation and outrage that spur terrorist recruitment, undermine the public cooperation with law-enforcement officials that is essential to exposing secret terrorist cells, and cede the moral high ground for those combating the terrorist scourge.

Among other pressing challenges in 2005 were:

-The Uzbekistan government's massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in Andijan in May.

-The Sudanese government's consolidation of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, in western Sudan.

-Continued severe repression in Burma, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Tibet and Xinjiang in China.

-Tight restrictions on civil society in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam.

-Persistent atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo ("DRC") and the Russian republic of Chechnya.

-And massive, politically-motivated forced evictions in Zimbabwe.

Although the United States responded to several of these developments, its impact was seriously undercut by its diminished credibility.

The effect was most immediate on issues of torture and indefinite detention, indeed, the administration rarely even raised concerns about torture by other countries and would have been labeled a hypocrite if it had.

But even when the administration spoke out in defense of human rights or acted commendably, its initiatives made less headway as a result of the credibility gap.

European and other powers, meanwhile, had their own credibility problems or did far too little to correct the balance. The result was a global leadership void when it came to defending human rights.

Sadly, Russia and China were all too happy to fill that void by building economic, political, and military alliances without regard for the human rights practices of their partners.

China's rise as an economic power, and Russia's determination to halt democratizing trends in the former Soviet Union, meant that many governments around the world confronted a political landscape significantly realigned to the detriment of human rights protection.

China's and Russia's disregard for human rights in their foreign relations created, in turn, further pressure for Western governments to do likewise for fear of losing economic opportunities and political allies.

Against this bleak backdrop, certain bright spots could still be found in the global system for defending human rights.

Sometimes the major Western powers still managed to stand up for human rights, as in Burma, North Korea and Sudan. Other times, governments from the developing world stepped in.

India, for example, played a constructive role in opposing the king of Nepal's takeover of the government in February 2005. Opposition was also seen on his crackdown on political parties and civil society (although India continued lending support to Burma's murderous generals).

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) did better with Burma, successfully pressuring it to relinquish its 2006 chairmanship because of its disastrous human rights record.

Mexico took the lead in convincing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to maintain a special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism.

Kyrgyzstan stood up to intense pressure from its powerful neighbor, Uzbekistan, to rescue all but four of 443 refugees from the Andijan massacre, and Romania accepted the rescued refugees for temporary resettlement pending long-term relocation.

Still, governments from the developing world were hardly consistent themselves in defending human rights.

Some of them took the lead, for example, in undermining the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and trying to prevent the emergence of an improved successor, the proposed U.N. Human Rights Council.

Others prevented the U.N. General Assembly from condemning ongoing ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Moreover, even those that showed a genuine commitment to human rights lacked the influence to make up for reduced Western backing.

At the multilateral level, there was also some good news to report in 2005. The International Criminal Court advanced with the filing of its first indictments — on Uganda — and the U.N. Security Council's first referral to it of a case — Darfur.

A U.N. committee concluded negotiations on a new convention to combat enforced disappearances, and fifteen African countries adopted a new protocol on the rights of women.

A summit of world leaders at the United Nations endorsed a Canadian-sponsored concept of a global "responsibility to protect" people facing mass slaughter.

They took preliminary steps toward strengthening the organization's human rights machinery, but as this report went to press in late November, major questions remained about the fate and definition of the proposed Human Rights Council.