Countenancing Human Rights Violations Overseas

excerpted from the book

Tainted Legacy

9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights

by William Schulz

Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003, paper

What the events of 9/11 taught us .. is that there can ... be enormous costs associated with committing or countenancing human rights crimes. Nowhere was that more true than in Afghanistan, the place that became the focus of the first phase of the war on terrorism, and Iraq, the venue for the second.

Eager to draw the Soviets into their own "Vietnam War," the United States began in 1979 supplying Islamic fundamentalists based in Pakistan with small-scale assistance to encourage their insurgency against the Communist-backed government in Kabul. "We didn't push the Russians to intervene," Zbigniew Brzezinski, then national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, said later, "but we knowingly increased the probability that they would." Over the next ten years, the Americans would provide $3 billion worth of military assistance, including Stinger missiles, to rebel forces. Among those receiving aid were a faction called Harakat-I-Inquilab-I-Islami, out of which the Taliban would eventually arise.

A case can be made that the United States bore at least a measure of responsibility, along with the Soviets, for the chaos that ensued following the war and that eventually led to the rise of the Taliban and their harboring of bin Laden. There is no question that, with the withdrawal of the Russians in 1989, many of the Mujahedeen who had fought the occupation with the United States' support, went on to commit widespread atrocities, including a massive number of rapes of children and women that paved the way for Taliban rule.' Some critics have even claimed that the United States, which initially hailed the Taliban as principled reformers when they came to power in 1996, had facilitated their rise both as a check on Iran and with the expectation that Afghanistan would become a friendly avenue through which to ship oil and gas extracted from Central Asia.

Tangled as the history is here and unreliable as hindsight can be, what is beyond dispute is that throughout this period, the United States aligned itself with a cast of unsavory characters, including Pakistani dictator General Zia ul-Haq, whose fearsome intelligence services were used to convey U.S. assistance to the mujahideen. General Zia used the promotion of radical Islam with its strict shari'a law to suppress democracy and human rights in Pakistan. It therefore served his purpose to sponsor Islamic extremists who, when their Soviet nemesis was vanquished, would turn rabidly anti-American and provide Al Qaeda with both shock troops and a home.

It is impossible to say whether the choice of those radicals over the Communists as the lesser of two evils was a wise one at the time and whether the Islamists would have driven the Russians out of Afghanistan even without U.S. aid. But, had greater weight been given to human rights, including by the "human rights president," Jimmy Carter, the United States might at least have thought twice about the potential consequences of its policy. Among those consequences: the vast network of fundamentalist Islamic schools in Pakistan established by General Zia, many of which today supply sympathizers, if not soldiers, to Al Qaeda; and the large number of forts in mountain caves near Tora Bora erected with American assistance by the Afghan rebels during the civil war-the Soviets called them "the last word in NATO engineering"-that shielded bin Laden and many of his operatives during the 2001 U.S. military siege and may have aided in his escape.

Moreover, there is a lingering sense in Pakistan in particular that the United States has betrayed its most fundamental values in the past (cozying up to dictators; ignoring the brutality of its allies) when it has appeared to suit its short-term interests, and there is no reason to think it will not do so again. Indeed, many Pakistanis feel that since the beginning of the war on terrorism, the United States has reverted to its past practice of subsuming others' interests to the transient interests of its own-by failing to make resolution of the dispute with India over Kashmir a priority; by refusing to call President Pervez Musharraf to account for his assumption of authoritarian powers; and by maintaining strict limits on American imports of Pakistani textiles in order to protect the U.S. textile industry. "America is like poison to me," one Pakistani clothing worker said recently. "I'm still bitter about it. I felt they were our friends.' This is not an outlook the United States wants to foster in the world's second largest Muslim country.

Saddam Hussein did not suddenly go off his rocker when he invaded I Kuwait in 1991. The United States knew long before then that Saddam was responsible for practices that would justify his reputation as a madman. We knew that, shortly after he became President of Iraq in 1979, he had videotaped a session of his party congress at which he personally ordered several members executed on the spot for "thinking" about plotting against him. We knew that torture was commonplace in the country. We knew, according to the 1984 State Department human rights report, that "Execution has been an established method for dealing with perceived political and military opponents of the [Iraqi] government. We knew that Iraq had used chemical weapons during its war against Iran and that in 1987-88 such weapons killed over 100,000 Iraqi Kurds.

Yet, despite this knowledge, the United States not only failed to enter strenuous objection to Iraqi abuses (the Reagan administration offered only the most token protest about the massacre of the Kurds, for example, and opposed legislation that would have introduced stiff sanctions against Iraq); it in fact had provided Saddam military and security assistance throughout the 1980s to carry on his war against Iran. This assistance included satellite photos, a computerized database to track political opponents, helicopters, video surveillance cameras, chemical analysis equipment, and numerous shipments of "bacteria/fungi/protozoa." A 1994 Senate Banking Committee investigation discovered that the United States had shipped dozens of biological agents, including strains of anthrax, to Iraq in the mid-1980s.95 It has been reported that between 1980 and 1991, twenty-four U.S. companies supplied Iraq with weapons related material; that the U.S. Department of Energy delivered essential non fissile parts for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program; and that Iraqi military and armaments experts were trained in the United States. After the Persian Gulf War was over, the Pentagon documented evidence of war crimes, including the use of acid baths and electric drills on prisoners, with an eye toward prosecution, but high officials in the first Bush administration scotched the project.

The United States did not "make" Saddam Hussein. But had his human rights record been more of a factor in our policy decisions, we might well have taken steps to curb his appetite for threatening behavior before it led to war. At the very least we might have resisted supplying him with the tools to do his dirty work. As it was, the comment Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid (known as "Chemical Ali") was overheard to have made with reference to the gassing of the Kurds, was entirely understandable: "Who is going to say anything [about our actions]?" Ali Hassan asked. "The international community? Fuck them!"

If the threats to world order posed by the Taliban's Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq were in part facilitated by the suborning of human rights violations, so, too, did such sufferance nourish the soil out of which the hijackers themselves emerged in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt have frequently displayed a penchant for violence, as the novelist Naguib Mahfouz learned when he was viciously attacked and maimed for life in 1994 after he supported peace with Israel and denounced the fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. Who can forget the 1999 attack on tourists in Luxor that killed fifty-eight? Measures to protect against such wanton slaughter are not only legitimate but essential Far too often, however, in the name of providing security, Egyptian authorities have overreached. They have targeted those affiliated with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been associated with terrorism, whether or not the individuals have been accused of committing or advocating violence themselves. Given the Brotherhood's political popularity (it often supplies economic support to the poor who have been overlooked by government programs), these arrests may well be designed to prevent the defendants from running for office or organizing politically.

Even more disturbingly, Egyptian law exerts tight control over the press and prohibits strikes, public meetings, and election rallies. Trade unionists protesting issues of worker safety and activists criticizing the medical services offered by a state-owned company, among many others, have been harassed or imprisoned for their efforts. In such an environment, only those who parrot the government line can feel entirely safe.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim dared to stray from that line. A highly respected professor of sociology, outspoken advocate of democracy, and head of Egypt's Ibn Khaldun Center for Development, Ibrahim, who holds dual United States and Egyptian citizenship, has been a persistent critic of radical Islamists, but it was not Islamists who would cost him his freedom. It was the Egyptian government that closed down his center and sentenced him to prison for seven years after he criticized corruption, election irregularities, and the treatment of minorities by the Egyptian state. Ibrahim was eventually released in late 2002, but the message had been sent to all those would-be moderate voices in Egypt: speak up and this, too, may happen to you.

One of the factors in Ibrahim's release may have been a threat by President Bush, who recognized how damaging the case was to the reputation of one of our staunchest allies, to withhold additional military assistance to Egypt. This was a marked departure from past administrations' coddling of the Mubarak regime and overlooking its human rights record. But Bush's action failed to win the United States many friends in Egypt. For after turning a blind eye for years to the political repression fostered by the second largest recipient of its military aid, the United States' sudden interest in the Ibrahim case sparked widespread cynicism. Was it only the professor's American citizenship that had prompted the president to act? Why had the United States never shown a similar level of concern for other Egyptians?

With no free elections, no other means of expressing dissent, and little sense that Western powers care about their government's treatment of its critics, it is no surprise that some Egyptians find the ideology of the Islamic militants appealing. Despite years of pulling its punches about Egypt's human rights violations, the United States has found itself with few defenders in its struggle with Al Qaeda, much less its war in Iraq ...

The case of Saudi Arabia is not that different. Article 39 of the Saudi constitution bans anything that may give rise to "mischief and discord." "Witchcraft," "black magic," and "corruption on earth" are also against the law in Saudi Arabia, and those convicted of them can receive sentences as severe as 1,000 lashes, amputation of limbs, or even death by beheading. But what exactly constitutes mischief, discord, witchcraft, black magic, and corruption on earth is almost impossible to say ahead of time. In fact, it is unusual for an accused even to know what crime he or she is charged with or, if informed of that, to be permitted a lawyer or to offer a defense.

What is clear, however, is that the vagueness of the kingdom's criminal statutes works to the advantage of the government. Commenting on the fatwa that established "corruption on earth" as an offense under Saudi law, an official source explained that it "applied to any individual who breaches the teachings of Islam, undermines security, or attempts to shake the foundations of the existing government." Hundreds have been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and dozens executed for such "crimes" as criticizing the government, attempting to practice a minority religion, or belonging to banned organizations such as the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights. Amnesty International summed up the situation this way:

Secrecy and fear permeate every aspect of the state structure in Saudi Arabia. There are no political parties, no elections, no independent legislature, no trade unions, no Bar Association, no independent judiciary, no independent human rights organizations . . . there is strict censorship of media . . . and strict control of access to the Internet, satellite television, and other forms of communication with the outside world. Anyone living in Saudi Arabia who criticizes this system is harshly punished. After arrest, political and religious opponents of the government are detained indefinitely without trial or are imprisoned after grossly unfair trials. Torture is endemic. Executions, flogging, and amputations are . . . carried out with disregard for the most basic international fair trial standards.

And this is to say nothing about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, who, in addition to suffering rampant discrimination, can be repeatedly raped by their employers without avenue for redress or flogged viciously if accused of "moral crimes.

Saudi Arabia is America's closest Arab ally. One U.S. administration after another has ignored its abysmal human rights practices in order to preserve the flow of reasonably priced oil and maintain military bases in the Middle East...

Myopia is not normally a fatal condition but the events of 9/11 have proven that it can certainly be a threat to a nation's-our nation's-health. It is not only that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were raised in the kingdom or that the corruption of the royal family was a major factor that spurred bin Laden to follow the terrorist path. It is that the Saudi rulers, terrified that democracy and dissent might diminish their power and access to wealth, have, like General Zia in Pakistan, underwritten a strict form of Islam called Wahabbism, designed to keep the population at home under control and burnish the Saudi image with radicals abroad.

Coupled with political repression, this strategy has, at least until recently, discouraged moderate voices and closed off all vehicles for political dissent, leaving violence the only apparent option for those who seek change. "We're not talking about a limited number of people [who support Al Qaeda]," says one Saudi dissident, speaking of the Saudi population. "It's a trend." "If you are the only school of thought," says another, of Wahabbism, "you by nature become increasingly extreme. And also, paradoxically, increasingly vulnerable. Reports of political instability in Saudi Arabia abound, which may be one reason one Saudi prince has called recently for democratic elections in the kingdom and a few dissidents been given | a bit longer leash. It may well, however, be too little, too late. J

... one authoritarian government after another, taking their cue from President Bush's declaration of all-out war on all terrorists everywhere, has used that war as an excuse to further erode human rights.

Robert Mugabe's notoriously repressive regime in Zimbabwe, for example, has expelled foreign journalists who have reported critically on his rule. "We would like them [the journalists] to know," a government spokesperson explained, "that we agree with President Bush that anyone who in any way finances, harbours, or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist. We, too, will not make any difference between terrorists and their friends and supporters.""' Burma (Myanmar), one of the world's most brutal dictatorships, was quick to enroll in the antiterrorist club, declaring it "has been subject to terrorism in the past," no doubt including at the hands of its great democracy advocate, Daw Aung Sung Suu Kyi. China has in effect extracted a quid pro quo from the United States, saying shortly after 9/11, "The United States has asked China to provide assistance against terrorism. China, by the same token, has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatism," which is Chinese code language for those who, usually nonviolently, seek independence for Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang." President Megawatt Sukarnoputri of Indonesia has used the threat of terrorism as an excuse for that country's abusive crackdown in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. Under the cover of fighting terrorism, even Australia has taken to refusing entry to political asylum seekers and holding them in deplorable conditions on Christmas Island, 1,400 miles from Darwin.

The United States has continued to speak out against some of these regimes-notably, those less central to the war, like Zimbabwe and Burma-but has far too often given new found allies a "pass." Washington is eager, for instance, to resume military contacts with Indonesia that had been severed due to human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military in the past and, even more tellingly, has argued in court against a lawsuit that seeks to hold ExxonMobil responsible for rape, torture, and murder committed by that military in conjunction with its protection of Exxon Mobil assets in the province of Aceh. Though the State Department was not required to take a position one way or the other on the lawsuit, it chose to do so because "initiatives in the ongoing war against Al Qaeda" could be "imperiled . . . if Indonesia . . . curtailed cooperation in response to perceived disrespect for its sovereign interests."

Malaysia and its outspokenly anti-Semitic prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohammad, have long been objects of criticism by both private human rights groups and the State Department, but in May 2002 the U.S. attitude toward this enemy of democracy changed markedly when President Bush received him at the White House and was effusive in his praise of Malaysia's support for antiterrorism efforts. Nor was the president reticent in December 2001 to embrace President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, despite his government's continuing harassment and torture of its Uighur minority and Nazarbayev himself being suspected by the Justice Department of having extorted millions of dollars from American oil companies. "We . . . reiterate our mutual commitments to advance the rule of law and promote freedom of religion and other universal human rights," the two presidents said in their joint statement, though critics might be excused from the cynical observation that this friendship was founded more upon U.S. desire to secure access to an airbase in Kazakhstan than a sudden discovery that the two both loved human rights." (Not surprisingly, within the following six months some twenty newspapers in Kazahstan were shut down and opposition leaders beaten.)

It goes without saying that gaining the cooperation of other governments to fight terrorism is a legitimate foreign policy goal. But what the United States seems to forget with great regularity is that by identifying itself with those who abuse human rights-particularly when the rights being abused are those of Uighur Muslims in China, Acehnese Muslims in Indonesia, Uighur Muslims in Kazakhstan, and Muslims in Chechnya-we invite the conclusions that U.S. rhetoric about democracy and freedom is no more than that and that the war on terror is in fact a war on Islam.

And one thing more we seed a new generation of terrorists. In Uzbekistan, to take one of the most egregious cases, the United States has cultivated a military alliance with a government that is renown for the grotesque nature of its human rights record: people detained without access to lawyers, families, or medical assistance; widespread torture; regular reports of deaths in custody; no dissent; no real elections. "Needless to say," explains one informed observer, "U.S. military aid for antiterrorist activities in countries like Uzbekistan will invariably provide their leaders with resources that can be turned indiscriminately against their own populations. And that, paradoxically, . . . will end up driving the discontented toward the only political alternatives that are radical enough to put up a fight."

Jeffrey Goldfarb, who teaches democracy to foreign students all over the world, reports that, more and more, those students (from South Africa to Ukraine to Indonesia), potentially our strongest allies, are turning against the United States. They see the war on terrorism "being used as a cover by dictators around the world to justify crackdowns on democracy advocates.... Suddenly the strategic resources of . . . dictatorships are more important than the lives of human rights activists. Suddenly the defense of the American way of life and our democracy seems predicated upon a lack of concern for the democratic rights of people in less advantaged countries."

Tainted Legacy

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