Our world today is deeply polarized. Comparisons are increasingly being made with the Cold War but in many ways it is more complex and dangerous now, because the opponents are not just governments but also armed groups with little or no stake in international relations.
Like the Cold War times, the political agenda is being driven by fear: fear of 'rogue states' with weapons of mass destruction; fear of being blown up by terrorist bombs; fear of being swamped by migrants; fear of 'the other' and of losing one's national identity.
The politics of fear is dangerous and divisive. It is undermining the rule of law and human rights, suppressing dissent, fueling discrimination, marginalizing large groups of people, entrenching conflict and sowing the seeds of violence.
As Amnesty International launches its Report 2007 this week, the annual assessment of the state of the world's human rights shows precisely the damaging impact of short-sighted, fear-mongering policies.
Fear-driven security strategies have led to a downward spiral of human rights abuse in which no right is sacrosanct and no person safe. Even the global ban on torture is under attack.
In a climate of fear, people in western democracies have been readily persuaded that the response to terrorism lies in the erosion of fundamental freedoms. Last September President Bush successfully convinced a Congress in pre-election fever to adopt the Military Commissions Act that denies detainees in Guantanamo Bay the right to challenge their detention before the US courts, and subjects them to trial by military commissions that lack international fair trial standards.
Playing on the fear of more terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has converted the world into one giant battlefield for its "war on terror" in which people are kidnapped, detained, tortured and transferred from one secret prison to another across the world, colluding with officials in countries as far apart as Italy and Pakistan, Germany and Kenya.
Whether in Mumbai or Manhattan, people have the right to be secure and governments have the duty to provide that security. But ill-conceived counter-terrorist strategies have done little to reduce the threat of violence and much to undermine human rights and the rule of law.
When western governments are themselves ready to barter human rights for security, what moral authority do they have to preach to others?
Old-fashioned repression in countries like China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Zimbabwe is gaining a new lease of life. In country after country, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, independent voices on human rights are being silenced with impunity and audacity. A Noble prize winning author was prosecuted in Turkey. A highly respected journalist was assassinated in Russia. International IT companies are colluding with repressive governments to restrict the right to information on-line, making the Internet the new frontier in the struggle for dissent, and blogging a life-threatening activity.
Fear is feeding divisions across the globe and within nations and communities.
Nourished by discriminatory counter-terrorism strategies, aggravated by fears of uncontrolled migration and inflamed by unscrupulous politicians and populist media, intolerance, discrimination and racism are on the rise.
Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have increased over the past year in many western countries. In many Muslim countries and communities, anti-western and anti-American sentiments are at an all time high, and easily manipulated by extremist groups into violence, as happened after the publication of Danish cartoons.
The most damaging impact of the politics of fear has been to deepen division and increase suspicions among powerful states. The recent EU/Russia spat was a dangerous sign of that divide. The readiness of some governments to sponsor Cold-War style proxy conflicts is another.
An international community marred by suspicion, fear and hostility has been impotent and weak-willed in the face of major human rights crises, whether forgotten ones in remote places like Sri Lanka and Chechnya, or high profile ones in the Middle East.
The UN took four weeks to muster the will to call for a ceasefire in the conflict in Lebanon while the world watched nearly 1200 civilians die.
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The Quartet -- the US, Russia, EU and the UN - has shown little stomach to tackle the human rights catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, or to seek a political solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict -- a failure of leadership for which the ordinary Palestinians and Israelis are paying a heavy price.
Darfur is a bleeding wound on the world's conscience. Although the US has been vocal on the need to protect civilians in Darfur, its own policies in Iraq, Israel/Occupied Territories and on counter-terrorism has robbed it of moral authority.
Last year, President Bashir of Sudan played upon the fears of his supporters to portray the deployment of UN peacekeepers as a cover for an Iraq-style US invasion, and successfully stalled the operation.
Paralysis on Darfur had been fuelled by double-dealing by China and Russia. They support the deployment of UN peacekeepers but continue to maintain economic ties and continue to supply arms to the Khartoum regime, apparently breaking the UN arms embargo. Meanwhile militia attacks, killings, rape and displacement spill into Chad and the Central African Republic.
When governments sweep aside the global values of human rights, when they fail to uphold the rule of law, they play into the hands of armed groups for whom fear and violence are the weapons of choice. Thriving in instability and insecurity, violent and extremist groups are increasingly posing a major threat to human rights and to weak governments and failing states, from the borders of Pakistan to the Horn of Africa and across parts of African continent.
Against this bleak picture, the real champions of change and hope have been civil society -- human rights defenders, social activists, journalists and others. In the face of all odds they have campaigned successfully for a treaty to control the sale of conventional arms that could be used to commit atrocities; they have helped to bring about political change in Nepal; they have supported the process of international justice and demanded an end to impunity; and called for gender equality.
What civil society has shown is that, just as global warming requires global action and sustainable strategies, the human rights meltdown needs to be tackled through global solidarity and respect for global values.
What is needed is a new approach: one that upholds human rights principles and the rule of law, and invests in institutions of justice, accountability and transparency at national and international levels.
As new legislatures and leaders take power in key countries and institutions, they have the chance to do things differently, to shift from fear to hope.
The new US Congress should demand the closure of Guantanamo prison camp and repeal or revise substantially the Military Commissions Act to bring it into line with international standards. Such action would send a clear signal of commitment to universal values and go some way in restore the US' moral authority.
The new UN Secretary General should press hard for a comprehensive -- not piece meal -- approach to Darfur, urgently deploying a more effective international peacekeeping operation and opening up a peace process based on justice and human rights for all. By doing so he would reaffirm the unique role of his office and the UN as the guardian of human rights.
In Europe new leaders are taking over in key member countries like France and the UK. This new leadership should take a more proactive role on Israel/Occupied Territories. It is time Europe stopped playing second fiddle to the US in the Middle East and lived up to its responsibilities as a global power.
There is no magic formula to overcome fear with hope except through leadership.
The Amnesty International Report 2007 is available at http://thereport.amnesty.org
Irene Khan joined Amnesty International as Secretary General in August 2001.
© 2007 Huffington Post