Accessibility links

U.S.: Will Antiterrorism Coalition Lower Standards To Achieve Political Ends?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The United States is determined to stamp out international terrorism in the wake of the 11 September attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania -- but it cannot do it alone. It needs wide cooperation from many nations and entities -- some of which are not known for their sense of justice or concern for human rights. A rough rule of political life has always been that if you want a favor, you have to grant one in return. Does this mean the United States is in danger of entering a morally gray area in pursuit of terrorists? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke talks to political analysts about the issues.

Prague, 4 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Never has the United States appeared stronger in its resolve. Namely that the terrorist attacks of 11 September, which killed some 6,000 people, not stand without a response -- and that such a response should eventually result in the eradication of international terrorism.

But translating resolve into facts on the ground requires political actions and -- politics being the art of the possible -- this implies compromise. As the United States has long been a champion of human rights, any compromises it makes will be open to scrutiny by the world's media and watchdog groups, to see whether they are compatible with America's self-imposed standards.

The issue is already in the public domain. In Washington, journalists recently asked State Department spokesman Richard Boucher about concerns that the U.S. might ignore human rights violations by authoritarian governments in Central Asia in return for their help in the anti-terrorism campaign.

Boucher responded by saying the U.S. has always had a fundamental commitment to human rights and that such a commitment has not weakened in its present contacts in Central Asia. But political analysts see the path forward as fraught with danger, given the nature of the regimes in that region. The U.S. would benefit in particular from the support of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan if it makes military strikes into Afghanistan, where chief terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden is living.

Arthur Helton, a senior fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., judges the regimes of the Central Asian states this way:

"All of [those regimes] present real dilemmas to the coalition-builders, and particularly to the U.S. policy-makers, who are desirous of assembling this antiterrorism coalition. These are regimes that in many respects serve at the expense of their people, and they have very mixed and sometimes rather bleak human rights records, which poses terrible moral questions, frankly. To align oneself with such regimes may simply encourage resentment and provide additional disaffected populations in which terrorists can seek revenge, so it's quite dangerous politically, as well."

Another analyst, Gareth Evans, the head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, also sees potentially major consequences from the increased U.S. presence in the region. Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, says the situation has to be handled "very, very carefully," and that the U.S. is -- as he put it -- "treading on eggshells." He says that some of the regimes of Central Asia have been suppressing normal political dissent using the threat of Islamic extremism as an excuse.

"There is no doubt that [the regimes] are very keen on anything that will squash extremism in their own states. The trouble is that they have been exaggerating the threat in the past of that kind. They have been cracking down on moderate political dissent and moderate forms of Islamic movements. And the worry is that if they demand -- as the price of support for the United States and the coalition in attacking Afghanistan -- even more freedom of action, and even more resources to engage in that kind of crackdown, then we will have a very counter-productive result. We will have more extremism being generated."

Washington-based analyst Helton says that from the start of the campaign against terrorism, the United States must build a human rights orientation into its policies, not just in relation to Central Asia but across the board. He calls for "a human rights alliance, as well as an alliance to combat terrorism":

"It's quite important that the U.S. not forfeit its adherence to its essential human rights [values] and individual rights values, as it understandably begins to work with other nations to curb, curtail and, if possible, eliminate these terrorist networks. Certainly these are extraordinary times, and extraordinary measures are called for, but we must look over the longer term and ensure not only that we can foresee peace, but also prosperity, and most fundamental of all, governments respecting human rights."

Focusing again on Central Asia, analyst Evans says it's important for the U.S. to minimize the extent of its reliance on the Central Asian nations in mounting any strikes against Afghanistan to avoid capitulating to demands from those regimes. The risk inherent in too much cooperation, he says, is that more Islamic extremism might be generated. And, like Helton, he advocates a long perspective:

"The crucial thing is for [the U.S.] to give support for economic development, to get rid of some of the underlying problems of economic deprivation and anxiety, which are always breeding grounds for dissent in one form or another. But at the same time make it clear that that has to be accompanied by political reforms and the creation of a genuine environment of tolerance of political dissent."

Leaving aside Central Asia, other countries will seek to use the current climate of revulsion against terrorism to change perceptions about their own behavior. One such nation is Russia, with its major problem of the conflict in breakaway Chechnya. Moscow has for years come in for criticism of its human rights record there.

London-based analyst Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, says Moscow, too, will now be looking for a payoff for its cooperation with the antiterror coalition.

"If Russia is going to be helping the Western allies in the fight against terrorism by providing intelligence, by providing support in the United Nations, by providing help in Central Asia, then I think the Russians are going to say that, in return, we want you to be more sympathetic about the Chechen problem."

This raises moral questions of how the Western allies should react in these circumstances. Analyst Evans, speaking while Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting European Union officials in Brussels, says he favors maintaining an approach that has been used by the EU:

"We understand any country is entitled to deal with dissent taking a violent form, as the Chechen opposition has, but that does not mean the response can be disproportionate. It must be proportional to the nature of the threat. It must not involve major assaults on essentially innocent people and must not involve major human rights abuses."

In the coming months, the U.S. government will have to do some careful navigating between the moral hazards on all sides.