Rights goals at odds with war on terror

Alliances are sought despite poor records

January 27, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As it expands its war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan, the United States finds the need to gain support from other governments clashing with long-standing commitments to expand human rights and democracy worldwide.

From Indonesia to the Middle East, the United States is reaching out to governments and military establishments with poor or questionable human rights records for help in uprooting al-Qaida cells and cracking down on Islamic terrorists threatening Americans, garbling its message on human rights.

Nowhere will this clash of interests be in plainer view than today in Uzbekistan, whose authoritarian government is waging a war against Islamic extremists marked by what human rights groups say is suppression of dissent, torture and widespread arrests of people for practicing conservative Muslim beliefs.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday incorrectly described Dushanbe as the capital of Uzbekistan. Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan. The Sun regrets the error.

In a show of disapproval, the United States is refusing to send election observers to today's referendum, which would extend the one-party rule of President Islam Karimov to 2012. "Basically, it's a joke," one U.S. official said of the referendum.

But at the same time, a high-level U.S. delegation of State Department and Pentagon officials will be in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, today to deepen America's security and economic relationship with Uzbekistan, which has won $100 million in aid for providing a U.S. base for the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military's detention of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Cuba continues to draw complaints from America's European allies despite the Pentagon's insistence that the men are being treated humanely.

"There's a conflict between a human rights agenda they're still committed to and a counterterror agenda that's taking precedence right now," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

In a report Jan. 16, the international watchdog group warned that the anti-terror campaign led by the United States was "inspiring opportunistic attacks on civil liberties around the world."

"Some countries, such as Russia, Uzbekistan and Egypt, are using the war on terror to justify abusive military campaigns or crackdowns on domestic political opponents," Human Rights Watch said.

Nina Bang-Jensen of the Coalition for International Justice cautioned that the administration may "ally with some pretty awful regimes."

"I hope as we make temporary alliances we retain the right to criticize," she said. But she added: "Terrorists are the ultimate abusers of human rights. They kill civilians and attempt to close down open societies."

The State Department acknowledges that human rights violations undermine the war on terrorism by so limiting peaceful forms of dissent that opponents of oppressive governments may feel they have no alternative to violence.

"We believe around the world that the best guarantee of stability, the best way to avoid terrorism and some of the sources of terrorism is to offer political avenues to resolve issues, to offer avenues for freedom of expression," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week. "We see maintaining and expanding human rights as an essential part of fighting terrorism."

`Taking advantage'

But fulfilling that pledge poses a problem. In the case of Russia, the Bush administration backed President Vladimir V. Putin's contention this fall that some Chechen rebels were aligned with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. The American statement was widely seen as a reward to Putin for allowing the United States to base its forces on territory of the former Soviet Union for the campaign in Afghanistan.

Since then, "Russians are definitely taking advantage of the fact" to crush the rebellion "like a bug," a U.S. official said.

The Russian crackdown has become so brutal that Boucher denounced Russia on Jan. 10 for what he called a "number of credible reports of massive human rights violations" that "contribute to an environment that's favorable toward terrorism."

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration in recent days has put all its emphasis on pressuring Yasser Arafat to clamp down on militant groups that dispatch gunmen and suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians. In the process, it has been nearly silent about Israeli actions that it used to criticize harshly, such as targeted killings of Palestinian militants.

Officials say the administration reacts to each such killing on a case-by-case basis and is inclined to be understanding about Israel's targeting of a known terrorist.

The administration's approach has drawn little reaction from Capitol Hill, where even Democrats are sharply divided over what restraints to put on the administration's campaign against terrorism.

Loophole

Congress recently adopted an amendment sponsored by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, that opens a loophole for the administration to resume military-to-military cooperation with Indonesia.

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