Another Way in Which 9-11 ”Changed Everything”
The Impact of Counterterrorism and Security Legislation on the Work of Human Rights Defenders
Presentation at Human Rights House Foundation Conference
Activists Under Attack
Open Society Institute,
Vice President and Director of
I appreciate the invitation to speak with you this morning about the ways in which counterterrorism and security legislation have been used and abused in the three years since the attacks of September 11 to make more difficult the already challenging work of those on the front lines of the defense of human rights around the world. As I stand here in the presence of non-governmental advocates like Shirin Ebadi and governmental advocates like Odd Einar Dorum, I must acknowledge the sad fact that my own government, in its response to the despicable violence wrought by hijacked planes three years ago, has often fallen far short of its own best traditions and acted in contravention, bordering on contempt, of international law.
In American political and cultural discourse of late it is common to talk of the attacks of September 11 as having “changed everything.” While that is a considerable overstatement – I live less than a mile from the fallen World Trade Centers, whose ashes floated into my back yard that sunny September afternoon, and the remarkable thing about such a cataclysm, a fact affirmed over and over again in sites of violence and horror around the world from Sarajevo to Kigali, is how resilient human normalcy is. But it is certainly true that September 11 changed a lot with respect to human rights – almost entirely for the worse.
It’s important to acknowledge at the outset that virtually all governments chafe at the constraints of law, seek more power and less accountability, crave less scrutiny of their actions, and rankle at those who would check that power, insist on accountability and focus scrutiny. It has always been so, and the victories of citizens seeking to claim their rights against national governments are advances of only the last few centuries. International recognition of those rights is younger still – the last half-century, for all practical purposes.
From the minute an international human rights system was put in place, governments found excuses to evade their obligations. For the first forty years after World War II, the principal excuse was the “global struggle against communism,” and much of what I have to say in the next few minutes will sound very familiar to the slightly older members of the audience – that is to say, my age and above -- who lived through the Cold War. We have only to recall the anti-Communist witch hunts and loyalty oaths in the United States -- not to mention the vast FBI and CIA domestic surveillance and disruption abuses of the Vietnam War period -- or the brutal violence with which military dictatorships in Latin America extinguished opposition movements and with which the South African apartheid regime suppressed the ANC until justice finally won the day.
It is in this context, in this shameful history, that what is going on now must be assessed. Here is a brief travelogue, drawn from the work of my human rights colleagues all across the world:
· In Indonesia, President Megawati Sukarnoputri told soldiers not to “be afraid of abusing human rights” in Aceh, where the army’s longstanding effort to suppress insurgents has now been “recast” in the words of my Human Rights First colleague Neil Hicks, as part of the “global war against terrorism.” Indeed, Rachland Nashidik of the Indonesian Human Rights Monitor has argued that “what we struggled for thirty years to obtain, and partially achieved after 1998 ... to push the military away from internal security and toward working as a defense power only” was used after the Bali and Marriott bombings as momentum “to get back its traditional power, based on the idea that the police force in Indonesia is incapable of combatting acts of terrorism.”
· In Zimbabwe, the Public Order and Security Act of 2002, repressive legislation that according to Arnold Tsunga, executive director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, “sounds the same language that is being used in America in terms of fighting terrorism,” if four people assemble without police permission, it is considered a “threat to public order and security.”
As former U.S. President and Nobel
Peace Laureate Jimmy Carter told a human rights defenders conference in Atlanta
last year, “dictators have been emboldened to violate the human rights of their
peoples under the guise of joining the fight against terrorism and ... the same
reason is used to deflect criticism from other powers regarding their human
rights violations. “ President Carter
went on to lament that “in emerging and even established democracies, hard-won
human rights principles are being eroded on these same ground of emulating new
Said Eddin Ibrahim of
While it is understandable, he acknowledges, that
Americans would mobilize against terrorism after September 11, “it was not
understandable at all that they should go to excess, and they engaged in
draconian measures that remind us of the McCarthy era in an earlier decade in
These words from brave partners who have fought for human rights in parts of the world where they must walk on the knife edge of terrorism, state-sponsored and otherwise, make an American who is angry at his government’s policies even angrier. What, you may ask, prompts their deep disappointment in a nation that has held itself out as a beacon of freedom and that even now claims to be waging war in the mideast to promote human rights and democratic values?
There is the misnamed USA Patriot Act, which permits law enforcement and intelligence agents to conduct secret searches of private homes and businesses without prior notice; which gives government agents easier access to personal information in the records of libraries, health insurers, bookstores, schools, business and non-governmental organizations; which eases wiretap laws to make it easier to monitor internet usage and e-mail; which tightens immigration laws to deny entry or deport many more non-citizens based on a broad new definition of “terrorist activity;” and which created a new category of crime called “domestic terrorism” that is broad enough to include groups such as Greenpeace or even anti-abortion groups.
When the U.S. Congress was considering the Patriot Act in the weeks after September 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft, doing his best to resurrect the ghost of Joe McCarthy, warned that the few lone voices raised against this rush to enact into law the “wish list” of police and prosecutors, most of which sat on the shelf for years waiting for the excuse provided by widespread and understandable fear brought on by September 11, were giving comfort to the enemy and conjuring up “phantoms of lost liberty.” Shamefully, only one Senator voted against the bill, which most of his colleagues could hardly even have read. Such was the climate in those fearful days. More voices have since been raised, including many of libertarian conservatives. President Bush, who seems unable to admit a mistake of any kind, wants the act extended and expanded. Senator Kerry, despite his vote for it, suggests some modifications are in order.
In case you think the Patriot Act
has gone unnoticed in palaces and parliaments around the world, listen to what
Malaysian Minister of Justice Dr. Rais Yatim had to say after he and Prime
Minister Mahathir met with President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft in
2002: “I believe that after the meeting
there will be no more basis to criticize each other’s systems, specifically the
(Malaysian Internal Security Act), because if they do that, then the Patriot
Act, which is quite similar in nature to the ISA, could come into a position of
jeopardy itself: Ashcroft seemed to
understand the existence, need and the future of the ISA in as much as we
understand the Patriot Act.” And indeed,
there has been no subsequent public criticism of the ISA by the
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi originally refused even to consider proposals from the Kenyan Law Society concerning the Suppression of Terrorism Bill, which could have been used to ban the Kenyan Human Rights Commission itself.
Less well-known consequences of the Patriot Act and related Executive Orders, but particularly worrisome to human rights defenders, is the trend cited in a recent Los Angeles Times article by Paula Newberg, in which “large humanitarian providers and small human rights organizations alike are checking their overseas colleagues and funding recipients against ever-changing lists provided by the U.S. Treasury, the United Nations, the European Union and in some instances, Interpol.” Transformed into “policemen for public policy,” Ms. Newberg writes, NGOs must now “check political affiliations before they feed starving families,” and avoid dealing with “those who have been labelled by someone, somewhere as insurgents, terrorists or enemies of their states” -- as Nelson Mandela, Jawarhal Nehru and Vaclav Havel were at one time.
addition to the Patriot Act, there was the mass roundup of thousands of persons
of apparent Arab or Islamic background, often held incommunicado for months on
end. There is the prison camp on
As Human Rights Watch has noted, these actions are “particularly troubling, and the damage to the rule of law in the United States may be more lasting because it is hard to foresee an endpoint to the terrorist danger that the administration insists warrants its actions.” It is one thing to suspend basic liberties in normal wartime and restore them when hostilities cease; quite another to do so in a permanent war with no end in sight.
to counsel, and its erosion in the
of course there is the war in
In one of the great ironies of our time, a war whose principal justification, now that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, was to fight terrorism has undoubtedly created much more of it. As my Human Rights Watch colleague Ken Roth writes, “Because targeting innocent civilians is antithetical to the most basic rights, a strong human rights culture makes terrorist recruitment harder. But if the fight against terrorism undermines human rights standards, terrorist recruiters will have a field day.”
This is a
distressing picture. It calls upon those
of us fighting for human rights within the
others around the world fighting for rights have drawn strength on occasion