‘Antiterrorist’ Bedfellows

‘Antiterrorist’ Bedfellows

As the war on terrorism gears up, governments around the world are already justifying repression in the name of that cause, while the Bush Administration and its allies send signals that they may look the other way.


As the war on terrorism gears up, governments around the world are already justifying repression in the name of that cause, while the Bush Administration and its allies send signals that they may look the other way.

On September 21 the Administration sent Congress a sweeping proposal to end all Congressional restrictions on US military sales to any country deemed "important to the US effort to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism or other actions threatening international peace and security." In the face of hostile reactions from lawmakers, the White House scaled back the plan so it would encompass Pakistan and India only, but the message to other countries seems clear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the most prominent leader to test the new tolerance, pointing to alleged links between Osama bin Laden and rebels in Chechnya and declaring that the United States and Russia now have a "common foe." Putin pledged to assist the US-led campaign but added that the full extent of cooperation "will directly depend on the general level and quality of our relations with these countries and on mutual understanding in the sphere of fighting international terrorism," implying that Russia expected acquiescence in a war that has indiscriminately targeted civilians.

Putin didn’t have to wait long for the payoff. The next day, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for a "new evaluation" of Russia’s war. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi chimed in, "We’ll probably have to judge things differently than we have done until now regarding Chechnya." The Bush Administration publicly accepted Russia’s claim that Chechen rebels were linked to bin Laden. It also soft-pedaled its previously critical stance on Russia’s atrocities in Chechnya. "I would hope that the Russian president, while dealing with the Al Qaeda organization, also respects minority rights within his country," said President Bush.

Others are following Putin’s lead. China said that the United States should give its "support and understanding in [China’s] fight against terrorists and separatists"–a reference to Tibet as well as to the Muslim region of Xinjiang, where China is engaged in a campaign of arrests and summary executions. During her visit to Washington, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri sought to justify Jakarta’s abusive crackdown in Aceh, Irian Jaya and other regions as a campaign against "terrorists and separatists." President Bush told Megawati, who offered to cooperate with the United States against terrorism, that Washington would ease the embargo on arms sales and lift the ban on military contact between the two countries imposed after the Indonesian atrocities in East Timor in 1999.

In Malaysia, authorities seized on the attacks to justify their Internal Security Act, which restricts peaceful dissent. In Israel, before the current efforts to restore a cease-fire, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer bragged that on the Thursday after the attacks his forces had killed fourteen Palestinians, "with the world remaining absolutely silent." In Kyrgyzstan, the government trumpeted a sweep for "pro-Islamic" activists. Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Abeid lashed out at the United States and Britain for "calling on us to give these terrorists their ‘human rights,’" referring to criticism of torture and unfair trials. "After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia," he added, "maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt’s own fight against terror as their new model."

The danger is particularly acute in Central Asia, where the United States is basing its support operations in Afghanistan. This region faces a genuine armed threat from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has been credibly linked to Osama bin Laden. But it is also home to repressive Soviet-style dictatorships in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Since 1997, for example, Uzbekistan has arrested and tortured thousands of nonviolent, pious Muslims for such offenses as praying at the wrong mosques, reading the wrong religious literature and listening to the wrong sermons. As the United States allies itself with Uzbekistan, it has to find a way to avoid aligning itself with that regime’s brutal policies.

An international campaign against terrorism should be about reaffirming the rule of law. States that use it to justify their own lawlessness only undermine this cause.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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