LONDON – The war on terror is provoking more terror, Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan told IPS in an interview Tuesday at the launch of the human rights group’s 2006 annual report.
"The war on terror and the way it has unfolded actually is premised on the principle that by eroding human rights you can reinforce security," Khan said. "And that is why as part of the war on terror we see restrictions being placed on civil liberties around the world."
That has led to the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp "where people that are considered to be dangerous by the U.S. administration are being locked up without any charge, without any trial, indefinitely," Khan said. "That cannot be the best way in which you fight terrorism. Because it plays straight into the hands of those who would want to destroy human rights."
Khan added: "The proof of what I am saying is that the world is not safer today. The number of attacks by armed groups has been going up according to research, and empirical evidence."
Irene Khan had controversially spoken of Guantanamo Bay as the gulag of today, referring to the infamous Soviet concentration camp. But that comparison now stands vindicated, Khan said.
"Last year when we called for the closure of Guantanamo, there was a lot of negative reaction from the U.S. administration, but today a year later you even have President Bush saying he would like to close Guantanamo."
Last week, the UN committee against torture called for the closure of Guantanamo, she said. "So what we had said last year about Guantanamo being the gulag of our times was really that Guantanamo is the symbol of blatant superpower abuse, just as the gulag was the symbol of superpower abuse during the Soviet times. And from that perspective, we have been vindicated because more and more people see Guantanamo as an iconic symbol of human rights abuse, and want to close it."
But that dispute did mean a political brush for a human rights group. Human rights and politics may not always be easy to separate.
"We are not a political organization; we do not promote any particular ideology or any particular party," said Khan. "What we are doing is we are holding all governments to account for their international obligations on human rights."
But are the two issues easy to separate in Iraq? "What we are looking at is the situation of the Iraqi people, the human rights of Iraqi people, and whether those that are responsible for upholding them are doing so, and that means looking at the Iraqi government, looking at the coalition forces, U.S., UK, and others, and looking at the armed groups in Iraq. In every case, there has been a dismal failure to protect the human rights of Iraqi people."
In Iraq, she said, "We judge what is happening not on the basis of political or military strategies, but on the basis of international standards of human rights that have been ignored, eroded, and violated."
But is this not the consequence of political decisions? "Of course, governments are political beings, and the decisions governments make are made for political reasons. But it is those same governments that also have legal obligations to respect human rights. You have to look at the human rights consequences of political decisions."
And are Western governments talking of human rights violations only where it suits them? "Of course, we see that very much happening, we see that for example in the context of the European Union, which has been looking at human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, but not necessarily within the European Union, and we see it now with the information that is coming out about renditions and the CIA flights carrying prisoners to countries where they could be tortured."
The European Union is often silent on abuses by its own member states, Khan said. "So clearly there are double standards, but those double standards apply also to governments like Russia and China. Darfur is a very good example of where they have miserably failed, because of their own oil interests, and the arms trade with the Khartoum regime."
Despite such human rights failures, the Amnesty report points to a brighter side of the human rights story last year.
"One of the most interesting things about last year is the contradiction that on the one hand we have seen abuses, and despair and hopelessness, but on the other we are also seeing some remarkable progress and signs of hope," Khan said.
On the issue of impunity, she said, over the last year both former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet are now on the way to being tried. And the International Criminal Court issued the first indictment against armed groups in North Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"We have also seen that though governments basically rejected the UN reform package put forward by the UN secretary-general, they actually accepted his proposals on the UN human rights machinery," Khan said. "We have a new human rights council in place, we have seen a doubling of the budget of the UN high commission on human rights."
In Britain, she said, the House of Lords threw out the government’s claim that they could use evidence obtained by torture by foreign officials in British courts. "We have seen Parliament question the anti- terrorism legislation of the government, forcing the government to modify some of the provisions there."
One of the most positive developments of last year was the mobilization of global civil society, she said. "Think of last year’s campaign against poverty, think of the changing public mood on issues of torture. We have seen a number of very positive things happening, but the question is the way in which governments are still in denial."