Human Rights News

September 11: One Year On

A Message to the Human Rights Watch Community

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(NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 9, 2002) — The September 11 attacks were a crime against humanity that flouted the fundamental values of international human rights and humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch once again expresses our deep sympathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks and their family members. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly expressed outrage at such attacks on innocent civilians and believes those responsible should be held accountable and brought to justice before a court of law.

In the wake of the attacks, the Bush Administration and a broad coalition of nations rightfully pledged to take united action to bring those responsible to justice. But in many respects, the campaign against terrorism has seen the erosion of international law, rather than its enforcement. Human rights have been undermined at the very time they most need to be upheld.

The grip of al-Qaida and the Taliban on Afghanistan was broken and the long-suffering Afghan people were promised a new future under the Bonn Agreement. Although a new government has been installed in Kabul and many Afghan refugees have returned to their devastated country, the United States and its allies have failed to provide adequate security throughout the country for the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan. This short-sighted U.S. strategy has allowed regional warlords to consolidate their power and undermine Afghanistan's new government, and seen human rights abuses -- particularly against women -- continue.

In its handling of alleged Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners, the United States created dangerous precedents by reneging on its responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions. Instead of properly determining the legal status of detainees in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and prosecuting those responsible for acts of terrorism, the Bush Administration has toyed with creating special military tribunals of dubious legality. Widespread criticism of this policy, including from the U.S. military, seems to have pushed the Administration in a new and unfortunate direction: forsaking the Geneva Conventions' requirements in favor of long-term, indefinite detention.

A raft of new initiatives by the UN Security Council, the G8 group of industrialized nations, and many regional groups helped to tighten controls on the financing and operation of groups committed to politically-motivated violence. Seventy-six governments helped bring into being the world's first permanent International Criminal Court with powers to try crimes of the kind committed on September 11. New commitments were made to address poverty, debt and even the repression that tends to breed alienation and violent extremism.

But in the course of the past year, many governments have adopted sweeping, arbitrary and disproportionate counter-terrorist measures, often directed against foreigners, particularly Arab and Muslim males. These have involved discriminatory policies, arbitrary detention and breaches of due process, arbitrary deportation and refoulement.

Some governments have used the campaign against terrorism opportunistically to justify crack-downs and abuses against their opponents. In India, for instance, the government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, a modified version of a previous security law which facilitated the torture and arbitrary detention of minority groups and political opponents. In Pakistan, General Musharraf has cracked down on suspected militants, while also consolidating the military's grip on power and unilaterally extending his term as president for five years. China has also tried to use the international anti-terrorist agenda to justify its broad repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, including peaceful activists and Moslem religious groups.

Other governments, particularly in the west, adopted punitive and restrictive measures against asylum-seekers and migrants. In Australia, the government stoked post-September 11 xenophobia to justify the summary expulsion, in blatant violation of international refugee law, of asylum seekers who had reached outlying Australian territory. In the United Kingdom, a new law authorized the prolonged, arbitrary detention of foreigners suspected of terrorist activity. Even multilateral efforts have seriously eroded refugees' rights by linking them with terrorism.

In the United States, the Bush Administration used immigration laws and an unjustifiably expansive definition of "enemy combatants" to by-pass the criminal justice system and deny due process safeguards to persons it interrogated and detained as part of its September 11 investigation. The executive increased its powers of surveillance, investigation and detention while seeking to block public scrutiny and limit Congressional oversight and meaningful judicial review.

These actions by the United States set a precedent and gave other countries a green light also to erode judicial safeguards or enact counter-terrorist measures that violate international human rights standards. Around the world, many of the United States' allies -- from Uzbekistan to Israel, Russia to Egypt -- took advantage of the war to justify human rights abuses and took heart from America's acquiescence.

To some degree the Bush Administration came to recognize that the fight against terrorism is undermined by repression because it denies people peaceful avenues to express dissent. It committed itself rhetorically to advancing human rights as part of the long-term struggle against terror. In a few cases, it made good on its rhetoric, linking increases in U.S. aid to Egypt to the release of a leading dissident, and not opposing moves by Congress to condition future aid to Uzbekistan on progress in democracy and human rights.

But like the Cold War before it, alliances forged in the campaign against terrorism were allowed to override other interests and diffuse criticism of or pressure on the most abusive governments. In countries such as Indonesia and Uzbekistan, military training and cooperation were extended or restored without any meaningful improvement in long-standing human rights abuses. In other countries, such as Pakistan and Malaysia, the United States upgraded political relations because of the war against terrorism while downplaying its concerns about democracy and human rights. The United States and European Union, reaching a new accommodation with Russia, largely dropped their criticism of Russian abuses in Chechnya.

Rather than relying on international law as an essential tool in the fight against terrorism, the Bush Administration increasingly treated it as an encumbrance. An increasingly powerful faction within the Bush Administration pursued a radical vision of the United States as above international law. This unilateralist and exceptionalist ideology found its clearest and most damaging expression in attacks against the International Criminal Court.

Looking ahead, there is a need to reconfirm what the campaign against terrorism is really about -- upholding human rights and the rule of law. By indiscriminately attacking civilians, terrorism breaches the most basic values of human rights. Combating terrorism requires not only security measures. It also requires a reaffirmation of human rights values, a rebuilding of human rights culture that, by discouraging the supporters of terrorism, must be a key element in terrorism's defeat.