Tainted Legacy

Dancing with Dictators

by William F: Schulz

Amnesty International Amnesty - Now, Fall 2003


Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism," said William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and Northern ~ African Affairs in December 2002. In 1992 the Algerian government declared an election null and void because Islamists were poised to win it. If the Islamists had been allowed to assume power peacefully and forced to cope with the challenges of governing one of the world's poorest and most fractious countries, it is entirely conceivable that, as in Iran today, the extremists might have split into factions, a viable opposition have arisen naturally, and the radicals eventually driven from power. (Islamists are very good at mounting protests but have an abysmal record at actually running countries.) Instead, tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, were killed by the Algerian government over the next decade in the name of restoring "order." Algerian militants were responsible for manifest atrocities as well, but the government's response to terrorism is hardly one that the United States ought to emulate.

Yet since the events of September 2001, the United States, never a purist when it has come to aligning itself with human rights-abusing regimes, has appeared even less cognizant of the bitter fruit such alliances yield, even less willing than in past years to challenge repressive rulers as long as they were on the right side in the war on terrorism. And one authoritarian government after another, taking their cue from President Bush's declaration of all-out war on all terrorists everywhere, has used that war as an excuse to further erode human rights.

Robert Mugabe's notoriously repressive regime in Zimbabwe, for example, has expelled foreign journalists who have reported critically on his rule. "We would like them [the journalists] to know," a government spokesperson explained, "that we agree with President Bush that anyone who in any way finances, harbors, or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist. We, too, will not make any difference between terrorists and their friends and supporters." Burma (Myanmar), one of the world's most brutal dictatorships, was quick to enroll in the antiterrorist club, declaring it "has been subject to terrorism in the past," no doubt including at the hands of its great democracy advocate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

China has in effect extracted a quid pro quo from Washing-ton, saying shortly after 9/11, "The United States has asked China to provide assistance against terrorism. China, by the same token, has reasons to ask Washington to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatism," which is Chinese code language for those who, usually nonviolently, seek independence for Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia has used the threat of terrorism as an excuse for that country's abusive crackdown in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. Under cover of fighting terrorism, even Australia is refusing entry to political asylum seekers and holding them in deplorable conditions on Christmas Island, 1,400 miles from Darwin.

The United States has continued to speak out against some of these regimes-notably, those less central to the war, like Zimbabwe and Burma-but has far too often given new found allies a "pass." Washington is eager, for instance, to resume military contacts with Indonesia that had been severed because of human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military in the past and, even more tellingly, has argued in court against a lawsuit that seeks to hold ExxonMobil responsible for rape, torture, and murder committed by that military in conjunction with its protection of ExxonMobil assets in the province of Aceh. Though the State Department was not required to take a position one way or the other on the lawsuit, it chose to do so because "initiatives in the ongoing war against A1 Qaeda" could be "imperiled. . . if Indonesia. . . curtailed cooperation in response to perceived disrespect for its sovereign interests."

Malaysia and its outspokenly anti-Semitic prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohammad, have long been objects of criticism by both private human rights groups and the State Department, but in May 2002 the U.S. attitude toward this enemy of democracy changed markedly when President Bush received him at the White House and was effusive in his praise of Malaysia's support for antiterrorism efforts.

Nor was the president reticent in December 2001 to embrace President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, despite his government's continuing harassment and torture of its Uighur minority and Nazarbayev himself being suspected by the Justice Department of having extorted millions of dollars from American oil companies. "We . . . reiterate our mutual commitments to advance the rule of law and promote freedom of religion and other universal human rights," the two presidents said in their joint statement, though critics might be excused from the cynical observation that this friendship was founded more upon U.S. desire to secure access to an airbase in Kazakhstan than a sudden discovery that ~e two both loved human rights. (Not surprisingly, within the following six months some 20 newspapers in Kazakhstan were shut down and opposition leaders beaten.)

But perhaps the most dramatic reversal of field had to do with Russia, whose brutality in Chechnya candidate Bush had regularly decried. "Russia cannot learn the lessons of democracy from the textbook of tyranny," he said during the 2000 presidential campaign, and he had vowed no cooperation without "civilized self-restraint from Moscow" strong language which in his May, 2002 trip to Russia had warped into "We will work to help end fighting and achieve a political settlement in Chechnya," his sole comment on the matter.

It goes without saying that gaining the cooperation of other governments to fight terrorism is a legitimate foreign policy goal. But what the United States seems to forget with great regularity is that by identifying itself with those who abuse human rights-particularly when the rights being abused are those of Uighur Muslims in China, Acehnese Muslims in Indonesia, Uighur Muslims in Kazakhstan, and Muslims in Chechnya-we invite the conclusions that U.S. rhetoric about democracy and freedom is no more than that, and that the war on terror is in fact a war on Islam.

And one thing more: We seed a new generation of terrorists. In Uzbekistan, to take one of the most egregious cases, the United States has cultivated a military alliance with a government that is renowned for the grotesque nature of its human rights record: people detained without access to lawyers, families, or medical assistance; widespread torture; regular reports of deaths in custody; no dissent; no real elections. "Needless to say," explains one informed observer, "U.S. military aid for antiterrorist activities in countries like Uzbekistan will invariably provide their leaders with resources that can be turned indiscriminately against their own populations. And that, paradoxically . . . will end up driving the discontented toward the only political alternatives that are radical enough to put up a fight."

Jeffrey Goldfarb, who teaches democracy to foreign students all over the world, reports that, more and more, those students (from South Africa to Ukraine to Indonesia), potentially our strongest allies, are turning against the United States. They see the war on terrorism "being used as a cover by dictators around the world to justify crackdowns on democracy advocates.... Suddenly the strategic resources of. . .dictatorships are more important than the lives of human rights activists. Suddenly the defense of the American way of life and our democracy seems predicated upon a lack of concern for the democratic rights of people in less advantaged countries."

It doesn't have to be this way. How much wiser it would be to look to some of our great human rights successes for guidance. In 1987 when the United States was closely identified with an autocratic regime in South Korea, anti-American demonstrations were commonplace among pro -democracy advocates, in spite of the sacrifice American soldiers had made in the Korean War. Gradually that changed. And what made the difference? "The antipathy declined as the United States was no longer seen as supporting repressive military regimes in Korea," said the U.S. ambassador, Thomas C. Hubbard. "Korea is an example of how democratic currents can dissipate heat and anger."

Of course no parallel is perfect: Korea was relatively prosperous; it was not threatened by terrorism; and American influence was pervasive. And that support for Korean strongmen still grates: When two 14-year-old South Korean girls were run over and killed by an American armored vehicle in 2002, it unleashed an outpouring of resentment attributed at least in part to lingering indignation at the past U.S. alliance with South Korean dictators. But there is still a lesson to be learned here: It does matter what company you keep. The United States would fare far better fighting terrorism if it fought more consistently for human rights.

And not just in the civil and political realm. Failed states obviously provide fertile soil for terrorism, but states fail for many reasons. The United States' support for the global fight against AIDS bolsters the struggle against terrorism. Governments whose armies are decimated and budgets drained as a result of the disease can hardly be expected to be paragons of stability or effective stalwarts against violence. Stopping the trade in illegal diamonds in West Africa means stopping the use of proceeds from those sales used to purchase weapons by terrorist cells, including, reportedly, Al Qaeda. And development assistance, if administered wisely and not wasted, can be a powerful tool against terrorism, mired as the retinue often is in poverty and hopelessness. As President Bush's former ambassador to Pakistan put it, "I really believe that creating jobs in this country is a way to protect American lives."

The United States would fare far better if it were a more principled and consistent advocate for human rights. But to be that, we would first need remove the mote in our own eye. We would need to climb out of the cellar when it comes to foreign aid. We are the nation with the smallest aid budget relative to the size of its economy (about 0.1 percent of GDP) of all the rich nations in the world. We would need to do away with the death penalty, our insistence upon which is already handicapping the "war on terror" as one European ally after another, scandalized by our continued use of a punishment they regard as barbaric, refuses to extradite or assist in the prosecution of terrorist suspects who may be subject to execution. Most of all, we would need to employ tactics that respect human rights in the war against those who would destroy them. But one of the reasons we are so ambivalent about those who have cracked down on human rights overseas is that we have so badly compromised them here at home. It is very difficult to clean another's face if you are trying to do so with your own dirty hands.


William F. Schulz is executive director of Amnesty International USA. This excerpt is from his book, Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights, to be published in October by Nation Books.

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