Rhetoric, rights and reality

Maryann Bird
22 May 2006

Through their security agenda, the world's most powerful and privileged countries have hijacked global attention and energy from critical human-rights crises elsewhere, says Amnesty International. Rights have been undermined, according to Amnesty, through deception and failed promises. "Governments must stop playing games with human rights", the organisation's secretary general, Irene Khan, declared in London, at the 23 May release of Amnesty International Report 2006: The State of the World's Human Rights.

The report takes a close look at events in 150 countries during 2005, a contradictory year in terms of human-rights progress, and one in which, in Khan's words, "clear signs of hope wrestled with despair". Khan was cheered, for example, that the overall number of conflicts worldwide continues to fall, and that millions of people in countries such as Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone now have reason to hope, thanks to initiatives in conflict-prevention and management, and peace-building.

But, she added: "Governments collectively and individually paralysed international institutions and squandered public resources in pursuit of narrow security interests, sacrificed principles in the name of the 'war on terror', and turned a blind eye to massive human-rights violations. As a result, the world has paid a heavy price in terms of erosion of fundamental principles and in the enormous damage done to the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people."

"Intermittent attention" and "feeble action" by the United Nations and the African Union, Khan said, failed the people of Darfur, in western Sudan, where thousands have died and millions have been displaced, and where war crimes have been committed by all sides. In Iraq, where sectarian violence worsens, Khan warns: "When the powerful are too arrogant to review and assess their strategies, the heaviest price is paid by the poor and the powerless – in this case, ordinary Iraqi women, men and children."

Emphasising that "terrorism by armed groups is inexcusable and unacceptable", Khan urged that the perpetrators be brought to justice "through fair trial, not torture or secret detention". She added: "Sadly, the increasing brutality of such incidents … is a bitter reminder that the 'war on terror' is failing and will continue to fail until human rights and human security are given precedence over narrow national security interests."

Also in openDemocracy on Amnesty International's new course:

Stephen Bowen, "'Full-spectrum' human rights: Amnesty International rethinks" (3 June 2005)

Rights vs power

That means, Khan made clear, that terror cannot be fought with torture, and claims that it can need to be resisted as "misleading, dangerous and wrong – you cannot extinguish a fire with petrol". The new Amnesty report hails the fact that the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom have begun to be called to account for the use of torture and its fruits, and that the Council of Europe and the European parliament have opened investigations into "renditions" (the transfer of prisoners to countries where torture may be conducted). Khan termed the practice "outsourcing torture", and the seven European governments linked to it "partners in crime".

But, she said, "instead of accepting and welcoming the efforts of courts and legislatures to reinstate respect for fundamental human-rights principles, some governments attempted to find new ways to dodge obligations." In the United States, for example, the rights of "enemy combatants" at Guantánamo Bay to have their complaints heard in federal courts was severely restricted. Amnesty has termed the Guantánamo detention facility a "gulag", in which prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, with no recourse to the protection of either the US constitution or the Geneva conventions. Amnesty has long demanded that the facility be shut down – a call that others have now begun to join, Khan noted. "Guantánamo is a powder-keg waiting to explode."

("No one would like to shut down Guantánamo more than this administration," US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said in a US television interview on 21 May. But the government is stymied, she says, by what to do with "the hundreds of dangerous people who were caught on the battlefield, who are known to have [terrorist] connections, who regularly say that, if they're released, they're going to go back to killing Americans." Try them, or release them, Amnesty replies.)

"Double-speak and double-standards by powerful governments are dangerous", Khan said, "because they weaken the ability of the international community to address human-rights problems such as those in Darfur, Chechnya, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and North Korea. They allow perpetrators in these and other countries to operate with impunity."

Maryann Bird was a staff writer at Time magazine and now works at openDemocracy as an associate editor.

Also by Maryann Bird in openDemocracy:

"Nepal: the underbelly of the beast" – with Kanak Mani Dixit
(13 April 2006)

"When the UK government remains muted on arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in Guantánamo, when the United States ignores the absolute prohibition on torture, when European governments are mute about their record on renditions, racism or refugees, they undermine their own moral authority to champion human rights elsewhere in the world."

Khan denied that, in taking a more severe stance against the US, Amnesty was becoming more political. As a superpower, she said, there are huge implications to the country's behaviour. Other governments, she added, should cooperate with investigations of rendition flights, and use their own political and judicial instruments in the interests of human rights.

Amnesty, Khan says, will be watching the new UN Human Rights Council closely to see how forceful it will be on issues such as Guantánamo, Darfur and Chechnya. "In a year in which the UN spent much time discussing reform and membership of its key institutions," she said, "it failed to give attention to the performance of two key members – China and Russia – that have consistently allowed their narrow political and economic interests to prevail over human-rights concerns domestically and internationally. Those who bear the greatest responsibility for safeguarding global security in the UN security council proved in 2005 to be the most willing to paralyse the council and prevent it from taking effective action on human rights. Powerful governments are playing a dangerous game with human rights. The scorecard of prolonged conflicts and mounting human-rights abuses is there for all to see."

High on Amnesty's demands agenda this year, Khan declared, are: that the UN and the African Union address the conflict in Darfur and end the rights abuses there; that the UN negotiate an arms-trade treaty governing small arms, which often are used to commit rights abuses; that the US shut the Guantánamo camp and disclose the names and locations of all "war on terror" prisoners elsewhere; and that the UN Human Rights Council insist on equal standards of respect of human rights from all governments.

"The political and moral authority of governments will be increasingly judged on their stand on human rights at home and abroad," Khan declared. "More than ever the world needs those countries with power and international influence – the permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as those who aspire to such membership – to behave with responsibility and respect for human rights."

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