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World: Democracies Against Authoritarian Regimes In Fighting Terrorism

  • Kathleen Moore

World: Democracies vs. Authoritarian Regimes In The Fight Against Terrorism

Kathleen Knox

What constraints do democratic governments encounter when dealing with terrorism that authoritarian governments do not? And are some authoritarian regimes using the September 11 attacks on the United States as an excuse to crack down on political opponents? RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox files this report.

Prague, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One of the trickier tasks faced by democratic countries when dealing with terrorism is balancing the need to protect the public against maintaining that society's civil liberties. This balance is under scrutiny now as democratic governments around the world consider extra security measures in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The United Kingdom is considering the introduction of national ID cards, while U.S. President George W. Bush is seeking increased powers to arrest and expel immigrants suspected of aiding terrorists, broader authority to plant wiretaps and the authority to seize the assets of suspected terrorists. The administration also wants to make the harboring of a terrorist a crime. If or when U.S.-led military action begins against those suspected of masterminding the attacks, much of it is likely to be carried out in the full glare of the world's media. The U.S. has already felt the force of public disapproval in their choice of a name for the counter-terrorism operation. "Operation Infinite Justice" is being changed to avoid offending Muslims, who say only Allah can deliver justice that is infinite. Considering these constraints, authoritarian regimes would seem to have the advantage in fighting terrorism. Terrorists operate covertly, and societies with omnipresent internal security agencies make long-term underground activity extremely difficult. And once caught, suspected terrorists in such nations are likely to be dealt with much more quickly and more harshly than in a country where the rule of law is strictly obeyed. And since terrorists command the attention of a target audience through violence, a tightly controlled media cuts off the oxygen of publicity. But this is not necessarily the whole picture, says Magnus Ranstorp. Ranstorp is deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in the United Kingdom. He says democratic societies have some unique weapons in their arsenals to combat extremism: "The advantage of operating in an open and democratic society is that we have to try to find means and mechanisms to integrate radical groups into the political mainstream. That ultimately, in the end, softens their message when they realize the realities of operating in politics." One example is in Northern Ireland, where politicians with close links to the Irish Republican Army have since joined in a democratic, power-sharing administration. He says authoritarian regimes can sometimes fall victim to their own excesses: "Their legitimacy is in the long run undermined by resorting only to the use of force, as it radicalizes these movements and leads to new militants, new breeds of terrorists and often does not eliminate the problem as a whole." He says these regimes can be further compromised if they rule out political solutions that co-opt the demands of fringe elements: "By pressurizing [terror movements] militarily and using force, it presses these groups underground and makes it very difficult for them to find alternative mechanisms of conflict resolution and integrating them politically, which would undermine their radicalism in the long term." Ranstorp says authoritarian governments have long used the fight against terrorism as an excuse to crack down on their political opponents. "The human rights aspect is something that will continue to be at the front of our minds in how these countries will use the existing climate to crack down on certain individuals. But I don't think [the September 11 attack] fundamentally changes the nature of how it's dealt with anyway in terms of how authoritarian states deal with their political opponents. It's just a continuity." One thing that has changed in the aftermath of the attacks is the shift in political alliances. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, or IHF, issued an appeal over the weekend for countries to observe their commitments to protect human rights in their efforts to combat terrorism. The executive director of the IHF, Aaron Rhodes, says Uzbekistan is a prime example of a country that has labeled political opponents and members of religious communities as terrorists. He says U.S. efforts to secure Uzbekistan's help in the counter-terrorism fight raises some serious questions: "Does that mean that we, meaning Western democracies, are no longer in a position to help the minority populations and those committed to democracy and human rights, who are being severely threatened by those regimes? Are we going to ignore their problems? These regimes may latch on very quickly to this war on terrorism as a way of legitimizing their repressive policies that aren't really [as] directed against terrorists as they are directed against political opposition and minorities." Uzbekistan faces a genuine security threat in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which the Uzbek government blames for a series of bombings in the capital, Tashkent, in 1999. The U.S. put the IMU on its list of most dangerous terrorist groups last year, and it is one of 27 terrorist organizations or individuals whose financial assets have now been frozen by U.S. President George W. Bush. But critics of the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov say it persecutes innocent followers of Islam in the name of combating the militants. In a report this week, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch warned that some regimes could use the fight against terrorism as a cover for their own internal crackdowns on political opponents. Kenneth Roth, the organization's executive director, warned the U.S. government that this danger is particularly acute in Uzbekistan. Roth said Bush is right to say the fight against terrorism cannot become a war on Islam. But he added: "Uzbekistan's indiscriminate persecution of non-violent Muslims is directly undermining this message." The International Helsinki Federation's Rhodes says the climate following the September 11 attacks could easily lead to democratic governments turning a blind eye to abuses in various countries: "The danger is that in the context of a wide-ranging effort against terrorism, governments will ignore -- even more than they already do -- the human rights abuses and abuses of humanitarian law that are going on in these countries." He says that in Turkey, for example, the government's crackdown on Kurdish separatists has led to the persecution of innocent civilians and, in turn, has fueled the separatists' cause.