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World: Report Says U.S. Antiterrorism Effort Shields Rights Abusers

  • Robert McMahon

A prominent human rights watchdog has criticized the United States for shielding rights-abusing countries that are its allies in the global struggle against terrorism. Human Rights Watch says in its annual report that the United States has undermined support for its war on terrorism by failing to speak out strongly against major abusers like Pakistan and China, as well as through its own treatment of terrorism suspects. But U.S. officials say they have maintained a respect for human rights in foreign policy.

United Nations, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A leading nongovernmental organization monitoring human rights affairs says the United States is undermining its global antiterrorism effort by failing to act consistently to protect rights at home and abroad.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says in its latest annual report that the United States in the past year has shown it is unwilling to confront its key antiterrorism partners on human rights. It says countries such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia have persisted with rights abuses with little challenge from the United States, tainting Washington's traditional leadership role in improving rights standards worldwide.

The report also says the United States refuses to be bound by the standards it has preached to others. It said the U.S. government abused immigration laws to deny criminal suspects their rights and refused to apply the Geneva conventions to prisoners of war from Afghanistan.

The director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, told reporters yesterday at UN headquarters that Washington has a special responsibility to uphold rights standards. "We are not claiming that the United States is the world's worst human rights offender. But because of America's extraordinary influence, the Bush administration's willingness to compromise human rights while fighting terrorism sets a very dangerous and counterproductive precedent," Roth said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday that the U.S. government has not weakened its support of human rights. He said, to the contrary, that Washington has moved to make rights a central part of helping strengthen societies in the fight against terrorism. "Democracy has been a hallmark of our policy around the world, and we've made very clear in the war on terrorism we think one of the best defenses against terrorism is to have the kind of society that is able to sustain itself, have the kind of society that's based on economic and political freedom, where terrorism has a harder problem growing and a harder problem existing," Boucher said.

But the Human Rights Watch report says that in a growing number of instances, the United States appeared willing to overlook abusive behavior by states allied in the antiterrorism struggle. For example, it faulted Washington for delegating the security of post-Taliban Afghanistan to warlords and providing them with money and arms. The report also criticized U.S. support for Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf after he pushed through moves to extend his power. Human Rights Watch said Russia and China received soft treatment from Washington despite repressive moves in Chechnya and Xinjiang. It also said Washington shielded Israel from international pressure after alleged abuses by the military in fighting Palestinian group and their suicide bombings.

Roth told reporters that his organization recognizes the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and terrorism, saying they can be addressed in part by using "classic security methods." But he said the United States has proved too willing to permit rights abuses, feeding what he said was a kind of backlash of growing anti-Americanism and reluctance to join the antiterrorism campaign. "It is a gift to the terrorists and for that reason, when we see this pattern replicated in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Uzbekistan, in Indonesia, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Chechnya, we are profoundly concerned, because we understand the panic response -- 'let's do anything we can to stop the terrorists' -- but we hope that the Bush administration can gain enough critical distance to understand that this flouting of human rights standards is hurting the antiterrorism effort," Roth said.

The Human Rights Watch charges against the United States were seen as overstated by another human rights expert, Ruth Wedgwood, who teaches international law at Yale and Johns Hopkins universities. In comparison with most governments engaged in war, the U.S. domestic measures have been relatively mild, says Wedgwood, who is also the U.S. representative on the UN Human Rights Committee, a panel that reviews how states comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Wedgwood told RFE/RL that so far domestically there have been no drastic moves such as interfering with free speech and that the government has been using its existing powers over immigration more robustly. The U.S. government, she said, appears to be acting responsibly to a serious threat from a group that targets civilians and has shown an interest in using weapons of mass destruction. "You don't want to let the war on terrorism become the occasion for undoing all the progress that's been made in trying to limit how military governments behave and [removing] the kind of court transparency that you would prefer in a democracy, but at the same time, you have to be realistic about the nature of the threat," Wedgwood said.

Tom Malinowski, Washington's advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that even as the European Union poised itself to become more diverse by admitting 10 new members, it became less friendly to migrants and certain minority communities. "Within the European Union itself, we're concerned about increasingly restrictive policies on immigration, racist attacks against immigrants, [and] against long-standing minority communities such as Roma or the Jewish community. And some of these, particularly the more restrictive immigration practices, have intensified since September 11," Malinowski said.

Malinowski added that HRW is concerned about the EU's ability to act in an effective and unified way in defense of human rights outside of the union. "Whether it's Chechnya, or Central Asia, or China, or Africa, it's very, very difficult for the EU to come to consensus, to take effective and tough action. And in many cases we've seen a kind of lowest-common-denominator policy," Malinowski said.

On a separate issue, both Wedgwood and Roth agreed about the need for reform of the UN Human Rights Commission -- different from the UN Human Rights Committee -- the Geneva-based body that meets annually to judge human rights compliance. The commission is appointed by UN regional groups, but in recent years, a growing number of rights-abusing states have joined and blocked initiatives to seek rights reforms.

Roth said the commission risks becoming what he called an "abusers' defense society." "Today, it's gotten so bad that some two dozen of the commission's 53 members are there mainly for sabotage purposes. That makes it increasingly difficult for the commission to condemn some of the most abusive governments, whether it's China or Zimbabwe or you name it," Roth said.

The Africa group at the UN nominated Libya to be the region's candidate for chairman of the commission, a move that is to be voted on by the body on 20 January.

Roth said the main way to reform the commission is to strengthen the criteria for membership. He said members must ratify major human rights conventions, provide standard invitations to human rights rapporteurs, and must not have been recently condemned by the commission.

(The full text of the HRW report can be found at: http://www.hrw.org/wr2k3/)

(RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)

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