New Internationalist

Human rights in a time of terror

Issue 408

At the beginning of a year that brings together the Beijing Olympics and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, David Ransom assesses the damage done by the ‘War on Terror’ to the one race that really counts.

ILLUSTRATION BY IAN MOORE. the chinese script on the shield reads ‘time of terror’.
ILLUSTRATION BY IAN MOORE. the chinese script on the shield reads ‘time of terror’.

If the torture of a single person could save the lives of a thousand others, would it be justified? Difficult to say ‘no’. But that must be said all the same, because torture has never saved anyone from anything; not from a single suicide bomb, not from a single act of terrorism or fate worse than torture itself. So why should anyone be asked to suppose that it might? Who can believe that it does?

Morality and belief may matter, but without knowledge and reason they readily produce a grief-stricken mess. The so-called War on Terror is a prime example. Britain really did invade Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, at the bidding of little more than the moral convictions of a semi-detached Prime Minister. In the absence of any supporting evidence whatsoever, the British Government still persists in trying to extend detention without trial, purportedly in response to the wishes of the police. On the basis of unspecified official beliefs about what they might do next, people in Britain can now find themselves under house arrest that may never end, on charges they never hear and evidence they cannot challenge in a court they cannot attend.

Not the United States

When a US President takes it upon himself to convict terrorists or invent ‘enemy combatants’ then the result is quite likely to be even messier. In Not the United States (Guantánamo Bay), three-quarters of the people kidnapped from Afghanistan and Pakistan were not even plausible terrorists, but taxi drivers and the like detained more or less at random, frequently by local bounty hunters responding to 80 million air-dropped leaflets promising hefty rewards.1 An unknown number of people have been been ‘disappeared’ to enable the extraction of useless information by torture – a passable re-enactment, this, of life under the jackboots of Latin America, which gave rise to a quite specific international prohibition on the practice.

In the US ‘Homeland’ the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are mere irritants to ideologues for whom 9/11 was not a catastrophe but a godsend. The Patriot Act, passed in just six weeks after 9/11, massively extended the Executive’s powers without any serious examination of precisely how such powers would have averted the original disaster.2 Swelling and unaccountable private armies, like Blackwater, don’t just shoot up civilians in Iraq, but were among the first to appear, fully armed, on the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.3

Trumped up

All this suggests that the War on Terror is not just morally adrift but entirely misconceived. After all, it is founded on the notion that ‘national security’ must somehow trump human rights. Even supposing that rights were a tradeable commodity, which they are not, the deal can never be completed, because human rights and human security are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent. The less the general respect for human rights, the greater the general experience of insecurity – and the more the War on Terror escalates its own self-perpetuating spiral. Shameful as 9/11 and suicide bombings truly are, nothing is less likely to counteract them than a disproportionate response in the same suit. At least since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and hard as many have tried, no-one has succeeded in demonstrating otherwise.

Slow and frustrating though it may have been, steady and significant progress really was being made on human rights. The protection of international law was gradually extended to women, ethnic groups, children, disabled people, migrant workers and indigenous peoples. Following the Vienna conference in 1993, international ‘machinery’ – courts and tribunals – finally began to track down petty tyrants and psychopaths, who would no longer be quite so free to cultivate the fruits of their numbered foreign bank accounts.

Lowest point

Yet this year, the Declaration’s 60th anniversary, comes at perhaps the lowest point in its history, characterized as it is more aptly by the repellent execution of Saddam Hussein than by the overthrow of a malign dictator. We have entered an ‘American Century’ of war without end, waged primarily by the very same states that were instrumental in making the Declaration in 1948 specifically to avoid war altogether.

It’s not as if there is any lack of work still to be undertaken. With the Cold War done and dusted, the ‘positive’ or ‘collective’ rights set out in the Declaration’s social and economic clauses remain spectacularly unrealized. Millions of children still experience the madness of hunger and death before they can have the faintest notion of their rights as a child. The right to life is not to be found in the absence of clean water to drink. The Declaration itself is of little use to those who can’t read it.

Lest we forget, Article 26 states categorically: ‘Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.’ So what can the over-educated suits of the World Bank and IMF have been thinking of when, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they routinely imposed fees for elementary education on the poorest people in the world? Not an indictment for the abuse of human rights, you can be sure.

Beijing blues

The reversal is made more telling by the coincidence of the Declaration’s anniversary with the Beijing Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee chose Beijing for 2008 it struck a deal that included a commitment from the Chinese Government to ‘improve’ on human rights. But, since the details have been kept secret, the deal is meaningless.

Meanwhile, China maintains its material support for murderous regimes in Sudan and Burma, a repressive occupation of Tibet, a predilection for indiscriminate executions and the suppression of internal dissent. Some reluctance to participate in the Games – if not a boycott – might reasonably have been anticipated, but very little response of any kind has come from governments. So it has been left to others, including some of those who are campaigning for the people of Tibet, Burma or Darfur, to make their own.4

It is quite reasonable to argue – as many Chinese and international human rights groups have done, thus far – that the Games offer some kind of opening to the ‘international community’ which will benefit the Chinese people. But an elusive international community, transfixed by the War on Terror, is no longer preoccupied with human rights. Rather, China has become so central to the process of corporate globalization that all other considerations have been dropped like a stone. The deep-seated addiction of corporate globalization to the abuse of human rights does little to suggest that the Games themselves – heavily reliant as they are on corporate sponsorship – will do much for the Chinese people at all.

Race for rights

Even if the Olympics won’t come to human rights, human rights can still stage their own Olympics. On the pages that follow, the NI celebrates the work of just a few of the people we think are broadly representative of an immense movement that has persisted, and will persist, in the face of indifference or repression by governments that have mistaken their own purpose. The races that count will not take place in Beijing in August, duly fuelled by the likes of Coca-Cola and environmental destruction, but continuously on the streets, in the fields and the homes of millions of people who know what it means to be human.

  1. Andy Worthington, The Guantánamo Files, Pluto Press, London, 2007.
  2. Barbara Olshansky, Democracy Detained, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2007.
  3. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater – the rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007.
  4. For a brief account of the hesitant boycott movement, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008SummerOlympics

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