Rights Group Criticizes US, EU Hypocrisy

The Bush administration’s "global war on terrorism" continued to set back the cause of human rights in 2005, according to a major U.S. rights group, which said that U.S. and European hypocrisy in carrying out that war led to a "global leadership void" that had been taken advantage of by more opportunistic powers, particularly Russia and China.

In the latest in its annual series of "World Reports," New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) singled out the Bush administration’s multiple defenses of its abusive treatment of detainees as both counterproductive to its efforts to defeat Islamist extremism and particularly destructive to its credibility as a global human rights champion.

"The U.S. government’s use and defense of torture and inhumane treatment played the largest role in undermining Washington’s ability to promote human rights," the 532-page report argued.

It charged that torture and mistreatment of prisoners has been a "deliberate policy choice" of the administration’s counter-terrorism strategy and that new evidence of widespread abuse that came to light during 2005 made clear that "the problem could not be reduced to a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel."

The White House immediately dismissed that conclusion, calling it politically motivated and insisting that official policy required that detainees be treated humanely. "The president made it clear that we do not torture," said spokesman Scott McCormick. "The world has seen that we are someone who takes the treatment prisoners very seriously."

"It appears that the report is based more on a political agenda than on facts," he went on, noting that the U.S. military had "liberated" 50 million people from brutal regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. "If you look at the facts, it’s clear that America is leading the way on human rights."

In an introduction to the report, most of which is devoted to assessing important rights-related developments over the year in more than 70 countries, HRW’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth stressed that while the administration’s detention policies were particularly destructive, its support – or at least tolerance – of abusive allies in the war on terror was also costly.

It cited in particular its backing for Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf; its equivocal response to the massacre of hundreds of protesters in Andijan, Uzbekistan, last May; its lifting of military sanctions against Indonesia; and its failure to speak out more forcefully against repression in Russia and serious rights abuses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"The same calculus that led the administration to adopt policies of abusive interrogation and arbitrary detention – the belief that human rights can be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism – led it to disregard the promotion of democracy, let alone human rights, with respect to governments that it viewed as allies," the report asserted.

But Washington was not alone in its hypocrisy, it went on.

It noted that the British government headed by Prime Minister Tony Blair had not only acted as an "apologist" for U.S. detention policies, but had also proposed adopting Washington’s controversial practice of "extraordinary renditions" – sending terrorist suspects to foreign governments that have a history of torturing radical Islamists – in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.

The European Union (EU) also proved disappointing during the year, according to Roth, who noted that the EU "might have filled the gap" created by Washington’s hypocrisy, "but instead it continued to punch well below its weight, due in part to institutional disarray and in part to competing priorities."

With the exception of Uzbekistan, where the EU suspended its partnership and cooperation agreement and imposed other sanctions after President Islam Karimov refused to agree to an international inquiry into the Andijan massacre, the EU and its member states were reluctant to sacrifice business and important political interests for strong promotion of human rights, according to the report.

"The EU position on Russia in 2005," it said, "made the U.S. defense of human rights seem vigorous," it said, citing similar disappointment with its China policy.

It noted that the EU, after "largely ignoring U.S. rights transgressions" through most of 2005, became "more assertive only in the face of broad public outrage" triggered by news reports in November that Washington was using European airports for "extraordinary renditions" and facilities in Poland and Romania to hold suspected terrorists in secret.

In the absence of Western leadership on rights, Russia and China "have been all too eager to assert themselves," according to the report, which characterized the two countries’ evolving role as "nefarious."

In contrast to the EU’s strong condemnation of the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan and Washington’s somewhat more equivocal response, China welcomed Karimov to Beijing with a 21-gun salute and a major aid package within two weeks of the killings. Not to be outdone, Russia also lined up behind the Uzbek leader and signed a mutual-defense treaty with him several months later.

While Moscow proved least helpful in promoting human rights and democratization in its "near abroad," particularly in Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan, China’s rapid growth and exploding appetite for raw materials "led to its bolstering of corrupt and repressive regimes in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, to the disadvantage of the people in those regions," according to the report, which noted that it had thrown "an economic lifeline to such highly abusive governments as Sudan and Zimbabwe."

The report also noted that Russia, China, and Uzbekistan, as well as a number of other repressive states, had effectively used the "war on terrorism" to brand their political foes as "Islamic terrorists" and justify harsh treatment against them.

Washington’s credibility in speaking out against such treatment was badly undermined by its own record of detainee abuse, according to the report, which noted that what public pressure the administration exerted, on Arab Middle Eastern countries in particular, to adopt reforms was generally confined to promoting elections.

In this, the administration appeared to be taking a page from the Ronald Reagan era (1981-1989) in Central America, where it also promoted and championed "democracy" and "elections" even as death squads organized by U.S.-backed armed forces were reaping their grim harvest of dissidents, according to Roth.

Despite the disappointing performance of the U.S., the EU, and the other great powers, there were human rights bright spots in 2005, according to the report.

It cited, among other positive developments, Western isolation of Zimbabwe and Burma; India’s suspension of most military aid to Nepal after the king’s coup; Burma’s relinquishment under pressure from its neighbors of its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN); Mexico’s leadership role in persuading the United Nations to maintain a special rapporteur on protection of human rights while fighting terrorism; and Kyrgyzstan’s refusal to hand over more than 400 refugees to Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.