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Counterterrorism as an Excuse for Silence

The same calculus that led the Bush administration to adopt policies of abusive interrogation and arbitrary detention—the belief that human rights can be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism—led it to disregard the promotion of democracy, let alone human rights, with respect to governments that it viewed as allies in its “global war against terrorism.” 

Pakistan was a case in point.  Responding to a question about his broken promise to step down as army chief by the end of 2004, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, said to the Washington Post in September 2005, “Let me assure you that President Bush never talks about when are you taking your uniform off.”  The Bush administration offered no public refutation.  President Bush did criticize General Musharraf for refusing in June to grant a visa to Mukhtar Mai, a victim of a retaliatory gang rape.  But when Musharraf during the same interview in September suggested that Pakistani women get themselves raped to “get a visa from Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire,” the State Department offered only weak platitudes about “encouraging leaders around the world to speak out about the fact that violence against women is unacceptable.”  By contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin formally objected to the remarks when he met with Gen. Musharraf later that month.  “I stated unequivocally that comments such as that are not acceptable and that violence against women is also a blight that besmirches all humanity,” Martin said.

The Bush administration gave a mixed response when, in May, the Uzbekistan government of President Islam Karimov massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijan.  On the one hand, the State Department protested the killings, insisted on an international investigation, and helped arrange to airlift to safety 439 refugees who had survived the slaughter.  On the other hand, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resisted calls to withdraw U.S. forces from the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) military base—a re-supply point for operations in Afghanistan and a foothold in former Soviet Central Asia—despite the inappropriateness of partnering with a military force that massacres its own people.  Instead, Karimov beat Rumsfeld to the punch in July when he asked the United States to leave the base.

After its ouster from Uzbekistan, the U.S. still had an opportunity to make a human rights point: it could have withheld the $23 million in back rent owed for the base as a way of signaling its displeasure with Uzbekistan’s ongoing internal crackdown.  Instead, in November, the Pentagon decided to pay, apparently because of its hope that doing so might convince Uzbekistan authorities to allow it to maintain overflight rights. Also in November, the State Department refused to list Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern,” despite its extensive violation of religious freedom, and to co-sponsor a resolution condemning Uzbekistan before the U.N. General Assembly.  These mixed messages continued a pattern started in 2004, when the State Department rescinded $18 million in U.S. aid on human rights grounds, only to watch Gen. Richard Meyers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visit Tashkent and award $21 million in new assistance.  This groveling before Karimov proved futile when, in late November 2005, he denied NATO members the sought-after use of Uzbekistan’s land or airspace to support Afghanistan operations. 

The Bush administration was also weak on Russia in 2005.  Secretary Rice, like her predecessor, Colin Powell, periodically spoke about Russian abuses—the torture and enforced disappearances that have characterized the conduct of Russian forces in Chechnya and President Vladimir Putin’s disturbing consolidation of political power at the expense of the legislature, the media, the private sector, and, increasingly, nongovernmental organizations.  But President Bush, who was uniquely well positioned to influence Russian President Putin, spoke about such concerns only in broad platitudes.  Receiving President Putin at the White House in September, President Bush mentioned their joint work “to advance freedom and democracy in our respective countries and around the world” but nothing about any specific human rights abuse in Russia.  At the same time, President Bush praised the Putin government as “a strong ally…fighting the war on terror,” noting that the two governments “have a duty to protect our citizens, and to work together and to do everything we can to stop the killing.”

The Bush administration in November waived congressionally imposed restrictions on arms sales to Indonesia. The restrictions had been imposed following the Indonesian military’s atrocities in East Timor in 1999, yet the administration lifted them without any senior Indonesian military official having been held accountable for these crimes.  Even though President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was democratically elected, the Indonesian military remains unreformed.  The administration seemed intent nonetheless on rewarding Indonesia for its role in combating terrorism. 

In Egypt, where as already noted the administration expressed support for some basic freedoms but overlooked torture and arbitrary detention, even its vision of competitive elections was limited.  While it spoke out in advance of the presidential election and helped secure the release of Nour, leader of the liberal Ghad Party, it ignored sustained government and government-inspired attacks on the party in the run-up to November parliamentary elections. The administration’s behavior during the parliamentary elections was even worse, possibly in part reflecting its displeasure at the success in those elections of independent candidates associated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s leading opposition political group, which won dozens of seats in early rounds. As events unfolded, White House and State Department officials repeatedly passed up opportunities to criticize mounting government-inspired violence, ballot-stuffing, and vote-buying. And the administration at no point questioned or criticized the Egyptian government’s continuing ban on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Similarly, while the administration deserves credit for seeking and helping win the release of three jailed Saudi political reformers in 2005 (the notable exception mentioned above), it put no real pressure on the Saudi royalty to democratize beyond a token, extremely circumscribed municipal election that excluded women voters and candidates.  It cited Saudi Arabia for restrictions on religious practice and tolerance of trafficking in sex workers and laborers but waived the application of sanctions.  When President Bush welcomed then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah to his Texas ranch in April, the administration said that it “applauds” the municipal elections and “looks for even wider participation in accordance with the Kingdom’s reform program.”  In the joint statement, however, Saudi Arabia merely “recognize[d]” the freedoms that make elections meaningful; it did not vow to protect them in law or abide by them.  President Bush added nothing on the subject. 

When Secretary Rice visited Riyadh in June, she offered none of the strong language used in Cairo the previous day about “the right to speak freely. The right to associate. The right to worship as you wish. The freedom to educate your children—boys and girls. And freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police.”  By November, at the inauguration of the first Saudi-U.S. strategic dialogue in Riyadh, democracy, human rights and political reform had safely retreated from the public eye to bilateral discussions behind closed doors.  Instead, the public emphasis was on Saudi cooperation on fighting terrorism and limiting the price of oil. 

The Bush administration did somewhat better with respect to China.  Although trade and security concerns featured prominently on Washington’s agenda for Beijing, the U.S. government did offer at least rhetorical support for human rights.  During a meeting at the United Nations in September, President Bush gave Chinese President Hu Jintao a list of political prisoners of concern to the United States, but the Chinese government released none of them.  Indeed, it cracked down on dissidents in advance of President Bush’s November visit to Beijing, eliciting a protest from Secretary Rice.  During that visit, President Bush highlighted the issue of religious freedom by visiting a Protestant Church, but the church was a state-sanctioned one, not one of the unapproved “house churches” that are the subject of Chinese persecution.  President Bush did express his “hope” that the Chinese government “will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly,” but it is unclear whether that plea was meant to embrace the secretive meetings sometimes required for worship in house churches. 

Before arriving in China, President Bush spoke of the rise of freedom and democracy in Asia, including China.  He said: “The people of China want more freedom to express themselves, to worship without state control, to print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear of punishment.”  Once he arrived in China, President Bush settled for citing as progress that President Hu had mentioned the term “human rights” in his remarks. 

The willingness to sacrifice basic human rights principles in the name of fighting terrorism hit a new low around the issue of enforced disappearances.  “Disappearances” occur when governments seize people without acknowledging their detention, leaving them highly vulnerable to torture or execution, and their families in a painful limbo, knowing nothing of the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones. 

A long-term effort at the United Nations to complete a treaty outlawing “disappearances” reached a milestone with the adoption of a draft by a working group of the Commission on Human Rights.  Several Latin American governments sponsored the effort, including Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay, because they had suffered a devastating plague of “disappearances” in the 1970s and 1980s.  France also played an important leadership role.  To their disgrace, the United States and Russia strongly opposed the effort, not least because each had begun using forced disappearances itself—Russia in Chechnya, where young men suspected of being rebels or their allies routinely “disappear” after their arrest by Russian forces, and the United States in the secret detention facilities that it maintains in allied countries, where twenty-six people are known to have “disappeared” and some dozen others are suspected held.  Canada contributed to this shameful opposition, not because it is known to forcibly “disappear” people, but apparently because Prime Minister Martin, eager to improve relations with the United States that had been strained under his predecessor, decided to run interference for one of his neighbor’s unsavory practices. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006