New Internationalist

War on terror - or on human rights?

Issue 346

Since the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year, governments around the world have proclaimed ‘war on terror’. The effects on Afghanistan and (to a lesser extent) Iraq have been widely reported. Less attention is being given to the war’s worldwide ramifications: the erosion of human rights as internal dissent is opportunistically renamed ‘terrorism’. According to Amnesty International: ‘Countries are using the attacks of 11 September as an excuse for internment, repression of opposition groups or restriction of basic human rights.’

Egypt

Since 11 September, Egyptian authorities have clamped down on those suspected of having links with armed Islamic groups. The Government has ordered nearly 300 suspected Islamists to be tried in three separate cases before the Supreme Military Court, despite their civilian status. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has noted that ‘we have much to learn’ from Egypt’s anti-terrorist tactics, despite the fact that such tactics have been used against non-violent critics and include emergency rule, detention without trial and trials before military courts.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Colombia

After three decades of a civil war that has claimed more than 3,500 lives (mostly unarmed civilians) each year, Andres Pastrana was elected President in 1998 on the promise that he would work with both leftist rebels and right-wing military groups to achieve peace. The leftist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) emerged in 1964 when peasants challenging the interests of large landowners were brutally repressed. In recent years it has financed its struggle through extortion, kidnapping and taxes on drug production. In order to get FARC to the negotiating table, President Pastrana granted them control of a 42,000-square-kilometre demilitarized zone. In 2000, US President Clinton approved Plan Colombia: a $1.3-billion aid package to the Colombian Government to train and equip the army.

With US backing like this during Pastrana’s term, the country’s military has grown from 79,000 to 140,000 soldiers. Some 60,000 of them are professional, three times more than in 1998. Pastrana pitched the plan as an effort to strengthen the peace process and boost economic development. However, when faced with increased rebel violence in recent months and emboldened by the present intolerance for armed struggle, Pastrana broke off the three-year peace negotiations in January and February this year and ordered the military to retake the 42,000-square-kilometre zone. Over 200 bombing raids have been carried out since then. The civil war is now expected to intensify.

Sources: Dr Lynn Holland (University of Colorado), BBC, Human Rights Watch The Sixth Division, AP, Project Underground, Amazon Watch

Gun law

From Chechnya to China, from Colombia to the Philippines, peace processes with those seeking independent territory are being jettisoned as governments instead direct their armies to pick up their guns and start firing at separatists. In so doing, soldiers engage in the type of ‘terrorist’ conduct that they say they are fighting. The Israeli Government’s offensive to root out terrorist infrastructure — directed against the Palestinians since 29 March 2002 — is the most publicized example. The Israeli military claims to have come close to eradicating all main Palestinian militant groups through arrests or attacks.

Macedonia

Macedonia came close to civil war last year, when ethnic Albanians staged an uprising demanding greater rights. Although the new Constitution formalized at the end of last year recognizes their rights, the tension in the country remains. On 2 March this year, seven men were killed by police in a suburb of the capital, Skopje. The police called them ‘Muslim terrorists’ and claimed that they found a number of uniforms during the raid that belonged to the now-defunct ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army. Doubts about these claims have led to suggestions that the incident was staged to disrupt the fragile peace between the Government and the ethnic Albanian minority.

Source: Institute for War Peace Reporting

The Philippines

The US armed presence in the Philippines, ended by a Philippine Senate vote in 1991, has been revived, with 600 troops now stationed in the southern island of Mindanao. These troops are allegedly fighting the Abu Sayyaf: around 80 bandits who are holding three people for ransom. Commentators suspect their real target to be separatists in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Some 300 extra US troops are also in the country, said to be undertaking ‘civic action’ such as road-building.

SourcesCAFCA

China

Although the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (‘Eastern Turkestan’) lies outside China’s natural borders and was independent for half of the 1940s, it fell under the rule of Communist China in 1949. Since then, the Eastern Turkestani Muslims have suffered a repression comparable to Tibetans. The region shares a narrow border with Afghanistan. Since 11 September, the Chinese authorities have stepped up their repression, justifying the detention of thousands of Eastern Turkestanis with the claim that they are ‘ethnic separatists’ linked with international ‘terrorists’. There have been a number of reports that ‘separatists’ have been sentenced in front of large crowds at ‘public sentencing meetings’ with some executed immediately after the rallies and others receiving long prison terms.

Some Muslim clerics have been detained for teaching the Qur’an. Thousands of others have been subjected to heavy scrutiny and ‘political education’, mosques have been closed and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan was banned in schools, hospitals and government offices.

Amnesty International has called on governments to refrain from returning to China anyone who is allegedly associated with any radical Islamist movement. Such individuals are likely to face torture or the death penalty on their return.

Sources: Amnesty International, Turkish Daily News

Crackdown

Defying international law and its own constitution, the US has taken into indefinite custody between 50 and 3001 Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners - without charging them - at an army base at Guantánamo Bay on land leased from Cuba in 1903. Taking the lead from this total repudiation of criminal-law rights, countries around the world have passed repressive laws of their own - in many cases reviving arbitrary detention and removing rights that facilitate fair trials.

Chechnya

While large-scale fighting in Chechnya nominally ended in 2000, Russian forces continue to detain hundreds of people without charge in the operations against rebel forces in this predominantly Muslim republic. Most have been subsequently released, but dozens remain unaccounted for and are not seen by their families again. Western concern since 11 September has been muted, though since that date at least one person per week in Chechnya has ‘disappeared’ after being taken into custody by Russian forces. The UN Commission on Human Rights chose to ignore the Russia/Chechnya conflict in April. This has not been lost on the Kremlin. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent with Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose reporting on Chechnya won her Index on Censorship’s award for Most Courageous Defence of Freedom of Expression, has witnessed Russian troops engaging in new levels of extortion, looting and rape in the Chechen village of Stariye Atag. She writes: ‘The federal forces took 300 roubles from the poorer-looking houses and 500 from the richer ones. Women were spared rape if they handed over earrings and necklaces. The poorest in Stariye Atagi suffered worst of all, because they had nothing to give the Russians.’

Source: Human Rights Watch, Institute for War Peace Reporting

United States

In the two months following the 11 September attacks, more than 1,200 non-US nationals were taken into custody in nationwide sweeps for possible suspects. Most were Arab or South Asian men detained for immigration violations. Amnesty International estimates some 300 of those arrested remain in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and an unknown number of others have been deported or released on bail, sometimes after months in custody. To date, the Government has provided only limited data about those arrested, including neither the names nor the places of detention of those held, and immigration proceedings in many such cases have been closed to public scrutiny. The Pentagon plans to spend $27 billion on terrorism during the 2003 fiscal year. The total Defense budget is $369 billion, with an extra $10 billion if it is needed for the war on terrorism.

Sources: http://www.whitehouse.gov>; http:/www.space4peace.org>, Amnesty International

  1. The lesser number is that given by the US military (http://www.nsgtmo.navy.mil) and the higher number is the estimate reported by the BBC, The Guardian and CNN.

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