Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Human rights in the war on terror

NEITHER SIDE in this year's presidential election got it right in the recent exchange over a more "sensitive" war on terrorism. Dick Cheney knocked down a straw man by suggesting falsely that John Kerry wants more sensitivity to Al Qaeda. Kerry spoke not of Al Qaeda but of sensitivity "to other nations [that] brings them to our side and lives up to American values."

However, behind that thought Kerry seems concerned mainly with better diplomatic relations. He too has indicated a willingness to sacrifice the respect for international standards that make the counterterrorism effort more effective.

A campaign against terrorism that is sensitive not just to other nations but to the values they share would pay greater attention to international human rights and humanitarian law. These laws embody the restraints on war and law enforcement that the nations of the world have collectively agreed to, even in times of serious security threats.

The Bush administration, however, has fought terrorism as if these restraints don't apply. It has summarily detained Americans in this country as "enemy combatants," ripped up the Geneva Conventions at Guantanamo, and used military commissions that lack basic due process guarantees. It has misused laws on immigration and material witnesses to detain criminal suspects without granting them criminal justice rights and deployed coercive interrogation techniques that amount to torture and mistreatment. The administration has also backed repressive allies -- Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghan warlords, the Indonesian military -- so long as they join the war on terrorism.

Far from making us safer, this rejection of human rights has aggravated the terrorist threat. Admittedly, some terrorist suspects have been killed or detained, while others have revealed information of varying reliability under "stress and duress" interrogation. But even Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges that the real test of success is whether the administration neutralizes more terrorists than it breeds. So far, the signs are ominously negative.

Suppose we judge the counterterrorist effort in terms of a "swing vote" in the countries that have produced most of today's terrorists. Some citizens of these countries are committed terrorists beyond persuasion. Others -- the vast majority of people -- would never resort to terrorist violence. But what about those in between, the swing voters who could be persuaded to act on their political grievances either peacefully or violently?

To dissuade them from violence, they must be given a reasonable opportunity to pursue their concerns through legitimate political processes. That means opening the political systems of such countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Their citizens must be free to launch independent newspapers, establish political parties and civil associations, elect their government, and hold its officials accountable.

Such swing voters are also affected by the culture around them. Because targeting innocent civilians is antithetical to the most basic rights, a strong human rights culture makes terrorist recruitment harder. But if the fight against terrorism undermines human rights standards, terrorist recruiters will have a field day.

The Bush administration has rhetorically recognized the need to promote democracy, but in fact has been more eager to build ties with cooperative security agencies, even if they are repressive. What ever the short-term gain, that approach carries dangerous long-term consequences.

Take, for example, the administration's embrace of Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf. Before Musharraf overthrew an elected civilian government in 1999, Pakistanis voted overwhelmingly for one of two secular parties. Since the coup, the Bush administration has acquiesced in Musharraf's systematic destruction of those parties. With these moderate avenues of dissent increasingly foreclosed, many voters have flocked to more radical political parties.

The Bush administration could have vowed to fight terrorism by scrupulously respecting human rights, in part to build broad public rejection of any arbitrary violence. But the administration eschewed this "sensitivity" to international standards. America's plummeting esteem throughout most of the world -- and the apparent ease with which terrorists are attracting new accomplices -- suggest this approach hasn't worked.

Kerry, however, doesn't seem to have learned this lesson either. When he speaks of sensitivity, he seems to have in mind better relations with other governments, which is not the same as adherence to international standards. In a May interview with The Washington Post, he suggested that human rights would take a second seat in the fight against terrorism, saying he would play down the promotion of democracy as a leading goal in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, and Russia. That would only replicate the shortcomings of current policy.

Sacrificing rights for "security" may seem tough and pragmatic, but it is fraught with peril. By breeding new resentments, foreclosing avenues of peaceful dissent, and undermining the international standards that help explain why terrorism is wrong, it risks exposing us to still greater dangers. It is time for the right kind of sensitivity.