UNITED NATIONS --
Demands by the Security Council that U.N. members act against global terrorism are being used by some regimes to justify repression of domestic dissent, U.N. officials and independent human rights advocates say.
The anti-terrorism campaign has been used by authoritarian governments to justify moves to clamp down on moderate opponents, outlaw criticism of rulers and expand the use of capital punishment.
Compliance with the Security Council requirements "could lead to unwarranted infringement on civil liberties," Bacre Waly Ndiaye, the chief human rights officer at the U.N. Secretariat, told the council's new counterterrorism committee. "There is evidence that some countries are now introducing measures that may erode core human rights safeguards." In an unexpectedly swift response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Security Council called on U.N. members on Sept. 28 to provide information within 90 days about their legal restrictions on fund-raising, financial transfers, arms acquisition and immigration.
|In a joint letter to Bush early last month, eight leading American human rights groups said his order authorizing the tribunals--which could impose the death penalty--will be cited by foreign dictators "for decades to come" as a justification for summary executions.
The credibility and effectiveness of the United States in opposing such repressive procedures will be seriously harmed by this precedent.
Eight US human rights groups in letter to President Bush
But there is no agreement on what constitutes terrorist activity, U.N. experts say, and some governments are presenting what critics contend are police-state measures as part of the U.N.-endorsed campaign.
"In some countries," Ndiaye told the counterterror committee at its Dec. 13 meeting, "nonviolent activities have been considered as terrorism, and excessive measures have been taken to suppress or restrict individual rights, including the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture, privacy rights, freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to seek asylum."
Ndiaye carefully refrained from identifying those countries, but human rights advocates quickly came up with a long list, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. In an interview at his office here last week, Ndiaye said he was concerned that the campaign could backfire and undermine U.N. efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and his native West Africa.
"The challenge is how to make counterterrorism measures compatible with human rights," he said. "Unfortunately, under the guise of fighting terror, some governments are pursuing other agendas. Our concern is that this may provide cover to many governments to get rid of their opponents."
Insulting Mugabe May Be Outlawed
On Dec. 20, the Cuban legislature, with President Fidel Castro presiding, unanimously passed a law that state media said expanded the application of capital punishment for crimes defined as terrorism, including the use of the Internet to incite political violence.
A week earlier, the government of Zimbabwe published a proposed law that would make it a crime to "undermine the authority of or insult" President Robert Mugabe, who is again seeking reelection. Mugabe's aides defended the legislation as necessary to combat terrorists, a category they said includes most of the president's opponents as well as critical journalists.
"We agree with President Bush that anyone who harbors, finances or defends a terrorist is himself a terrorist," a presidential spokesman said.
In Central Asia, the government of Uzbekistan has defended its jailing of moderate Islamist opponents as part of the world campaign against "evildoers," while Kyrgyzstan has intensified internal travel controls on dissidents.
The trend to toughen statutes aimed primarily at domestic dissent worries advocates such as Michael Posner, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
"We are going to see repeated examples of governments using the new security environment as a pretext for silencing dissidents," he said. "This gives a green light to the Mugabes of the world to go after their opponents under the cover of what the U.S. and the U.K. are doing" to fight terror.
The chairman of the Security Council's counterterrorism committee, British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, has agreed to Ndiaye's request that he add a human rights specialist to the committee's advisors, who already include specialists on money laundering and intelligence gathering. But the council's priority is to combat terrorism.
"The counterterrorism committee is not going to be the tool to resolve human rights problems around the world," said a European official at the committee who asked not to be named.
The U.N.'s own human rights advocates are limited to an advisory role in Security Council proceedings, noted Ndiaye, the New York deputy of Mary Robinson, the Geneva-based U.N. high commissioner for human rights. She in turn reports to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Robinson, a former president of Ireland, is viewed with suspicion in Washington, Moscow and Beijing because of liberal stands that are widely admired by human rights activists. Russia and China have publicly interpreted the Security Council's counterterror push as an endorsement of their own armed campaigns against Muslim rebels, which have drawn strong criticism at U.N. human rights forums.
By the midnight deadline Thursday, more than 100 of the U.N.'s 189 member states had filed their replies to the council, and most of the rest pledged to submit responses when the U.N. resumes sessions early this month. The published responses range from long catalogs of efforts to disrupt terrorist networks to cursory reiterations of official policy.
A Two-Page Memo From Venezuela
The U.S. report, which American officials say was intended as a "template" for other countries, runs 23 pages. Venezuela, which has been accused of sheltering Colombian terrorists, sent a two-page memo pledging cooperation with the council and summarizing its long-standing international treaty commitments. The hard-line military regime in Myanmar, in an equally terse submission, depicted itself as a victim of global terrorism, citing last year's occupation of its embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, by dissidents it labeled "expatriate terrorists."
Within Myanmar itself, however, "there are no terrorists," the government assured the Security Council.
One of the first Middle Eastern submissions came from Syria, which is poised to join the council for a two-year term this month. The Syrian response makes a virtue of Syria's strict controls over both the economy and the political system, contending that financial support for terrorists is effectively curtailed by the absence of any private banking system or independent charities. The Syrians cite as a further deterrent their "harsh penalties" for threats to the public order, including capital punishment for such offenses as the "disruption of means of information, communications or transport."
The United States still officially calls Syria a terrorist state because of its backing of Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and because of Damascus' history as a haven for Islamic Jihad and other militant Palestinian factions. Syria asserted in its report that although it has ratified several regional and international conventions against terrorism, the "legitimate struggle against foreign occupation" does not fall under the definition of terrorism in these treaties. Syria, which does not recognize Israel, condones armed attacks by Palestinians within Israel's borders as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli and Palestinian diplomats said in interviews that the U.N. counterterror push has already blunted outside criticism of methods used on both sides to combat accused terrorists, including preventive detention and restrictions on speech and assembly. The Israeli submission to the Security Council cites laws on the books since Israel's founding that impose fines and jail time for "propaganda speeches" on behalf of terrorists or the possession of literature published by such groups. For decades, civil libertarians in Israel have urged that these statutes be rescinded.
Foreign condemnation of Israel's "extrajudicial killings" of accused terrorists has been muted since September, said Yehuda Lancry, Israel's U.N. representative.
Palestinian officials say that although they have come under intense criticism for arresting dissidents without charges or published evidence, the pressure on the Palestinian Authority to stop terror attacks has now relegated such concerns to the sidelines.
"The atmosphere everywhere has changed since Sept. 11," said Nasser Kidwa, the permanent Palestinian observer at the U.N. "The American people themselves are saying, 'Forget about due process, we want to stop terrorism,' and you are hearing things that would have been unmentionable here before, like military tribunals."
The prospective American military tribunals, though perhaps the single most significant change in U.S. counterterror policies since Sept. 11, are notably not highlighted in the report submitted by the U.S. government to the Security Council last month. Yet the tribunals' ultimate impact on regimes elsewhere might be greater than any other counterterror initiative by council members, human rights activists say.
In a joint letter to Bush early last month, eight leading American human rights groups said his order authorizing the tribunals--which could impose the death penalty--will be cited by foreign dictators "for decades to come" as a justification for summary executions.
"The credibility and effectiveness of the United States in opposing such repressive procedures will be seriously harmed by this precedent," the letter said.
The United States, in an embarrassment to the State Department, was voted off the Human Rights Commission in Geneva last year. The U.S. is expected to reclaim a seat on the commission when it reconvenes in March, but human rights groups that strongly supported U.S. membership say they are now concerned that Washington will be a less aggressive advocate for judicial reform and the protection of dissent.
"The State Department's last annual human rights report was filled with critical references to due-process concerns in places like Colombia, Egypt and Turkey," said the Lawyers Committee's Posner. "Whether they are going to be able to say all that again without subjecting themselves to ridicule is an open question."
U.N. human rights officials say they are also concerned that the counterterror focus could pose problems for U.N. efforts to encourage independent judiciaries and free election environments in violence-racked societies such as East Timor, Sierra Leone, the Yugoslav region of Kosovo and--in the coming year--Afghanistan.
"'The terrorists pose a threat to both security and human rights, and many countries may, and rightly, resort to exceptional measures," said Ndiaye, a burly, soft-spoken Senegalese lawyer and former Amnesty International official. "But even after 9/11, defendants still deserve a fair trial, and a government's opponents still have the right of speech and assembly. These should not be restricted. If you do, you are undermining the very reason that you are fighting against them."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times