Terrorists violate basic human rights principles because they target civilians. But the United States undermines those principles when it overlooks human rights abuses by anti-terror allies such as Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia and Afghan warlords, Human Rights Watch said in its annual survey of human rights around the world.
The 558-page Human Rights Watch World Report 2003 covers human rights in 58 countries in 2002. It identifies positive trends such as the formal end to wars in Angola and Sierra Leone, as well as serious peace talks in Sri Lanka and Sudan. But negative developments included the outbreak of serious communal violence in Gujarat, India, and the continued killing of civilians in wars from Colombia to Chechnya, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, governments continued highly repressive policies in Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Liberia and Vietnam.
"The United States is far from the world's worst human rights abuser," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "But Washington has so much power today that when it flouts human rights standards, it damages the human rights cause worldwide."
Human Rights Watch said the Bush administration seemed to recognize the connections between repression and terrorism in its National Security Strategy, and had taken some steps to promote human rights in countries directly involved in the struggle against terrorism, such as Egypt and Uzbekistan. The United States has also tried to advance human rights in places where the war was not implicated, including Burma, Belarus and Zimbabwe. Yet the U.S. government's engagement on human rights has been compromised by its unwillingness to confront a number of crucial partners, and its refusal to be bound by standards it preaches to others.
"To fight terrorism, you need the support of people in countries where the terrorists live," said Roth. "Cozying up to oppressive governments is hardly a way to build those alliances."
For example, the United States is generating popular resentment in Pakistan by uncritically backing General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup.
"He's still tight with us on the war against terror, and that's what I appreciate," U.S. President George Bush said about Musharraf, who last year pushed through constitutional amendments to extend his presidential term by five years and recently strengthened a draconian anti-terror decree.
In China, the Bush administration has downplayed the repression of Muslims in the northwest Xinjiang province, which the Chinese government justifies as an anti-terrorist measure. Saudi Arabia, with its highly repressive government, is an important regional player and the U.S. government rarely challenges it on human rights.
The Bush administration is seeking to reinvigorate ties to the Indonesian military, despite the lack of accountability for its serious human rights abuses and the military's support for militia groups that foster instability. The United States has also been reluctant to expand the international peacekeeping forces that could help bring stability to Afghanistan, relying instead on abusive warlords who are inhibiting the human rights progress made possible by the fall of the Taliban.
In addition, Washington has ignored human rights standards in its own treatment of terrorist suspects. It has refused to apply the Geneva Conventions to prisoners of war from Afghanistan, and has misused the designation of "enemy combatant" to apply to criminal suspects on U.S. soil. The Bush administration has also abused immigration laws to deny criminal suspects their rights.
In 2002, the U.S. government actively tried to undermine important human rights initiatives such as the International Criminal Court, a new international inspection regime to prevent torture, and a United Nations resolution that the war on terrorism should be fought in a manner consistent with human rights.
The war against terror has provided an excuse for other Western countries to slacken their support for human rights. European leaders virtually abandoned efforts to pressure Russia, an anti-terror ally, to end its abusive conduct of the war in Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch does not take a position on the possible war in Iraq, and believes that its most important contribution to reducing the civilian suffering that war entails is to monitor and promote the compliance by all warring parties with international humanitarian law.
Roth noted that the more U.S. government officials cite Saddam Hussein's human rights record as one reason to topple him, the greater their obligation to minimize the potentially serious human rights consequences of any war in Iraq. The United States should take all feasible measures to protect Iraqi civilians from acts of revenge by Saddam Hussein, including the possible use of weapons of mass destruction. At minimum, it should make clear that anyone who directs or commits atrocities will be prosecuted, not just a handful of senior Iraqi officials.
The United States should ensure that its local allies in any Iraq war do not engage in revenge killings or reprisals against civilians. And the Bush administration should also put pressure on Iraq's neighbors, such as Turkey, Jordan and Iran, to keep their borders open to refugees.
Human Rights Watch is an international monitoring group based in New York, with offices around the world. It does not accept funding from any government.