www.sacw.net | January 27, 2005
Global War on Terrorism and Democratic Rights
by Tapan Kumar Bose
(Revised on December 3, 2004)
The theme of terrorism dominates the mass media today and this daily onslaught on our senses by the print and the electronic media is building "terror hysteria". The media campaign projects "terrorism" as a philosophy of perpetual violence, which intends to terrorize the masses and destroy the civilized world. It seems that the exponents of "terrorism" aim to create a state of permanent chaos. Terrorism is the evil spirit of the nether world, which corrupts the souls of the people it touches and turns them into devil. The terrorists therefore, are a bunch of demented killers - the barbarians of yore who only want to create anarchy.
The United Nations has been concerned with terrorist crimes at the international level for quite some time. Between 1970 and 1999 at least about 10 international conventions were adopted, which defined various "terrorist" activities and empowered international and national law enforcing agencies to take preventive action and punish the perpetrators. (Copies of all these conventions and treaties may be obtained from: http://untreaty.un.org/English/Terroism.asp) The UN General Assembly had set up an Ad-hoc Committee on Terrorism in December 1996. The committee submitted its report in 2002. (Copy of report available from: http://www.un.org/terrorism/comesp.htm). The draft UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism is still being discussed. However both the draft convention and the UN Security Council Resolution 1566 of 2004 define terrorism only in terms of activities and not as an ideology or a philosophy or as a belief system. Paragraph 3 of the UNSC Resolution 1566 defines acts of terrorism as "criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious injury, or taking hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act". (http://www.un.org/terrorism) .
It is interesting to note that the ASEAN Declaration on the Joint Action to Counter Terrorism (2001), the Inter American Convention Against Terrorism (2002) and the Eleventh SAARC Summit Declaration, the Additional Protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism (2004) and the OSCE Bucharest Plan of Action for Combating Terrorism do not contain any definition of terrorism. Under the anti-terrorist laws passed by most of the South Asian countries individuals or any group of persons may be charged with terrorism. In some of these laws, "association" with terrorism or terrorist groups is so loosely defined that even sharing a meal in a public restaurant with a person who subsequently commits an act of terrorism is punishable It should be noted that the Article 2 (1) of the European Commission's Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism does not recognize any randomly formed group for the immediate commission of an offence that does not need to have formally defined roles for its members as a "terrorist group". The same Article says, "For the purpose of the Framework Decision a Žterrorist group' shall mean: a structured group of more than two persons, established over a period of time and acting in concert to commit terrorist offences." (The text of the Framework Decision of the EU may be seen at http://www.legislationonline.org/vi.php?document=57733&ref=true).
Until recently all acts of violence were not regarded as terrorist. Violence is a part of our social life. Our societies are based on inequality. Injustice is intrinsic in our system of governance. Perpetration of injustice and the failure of the state to redress the grievances of the people every so often lead the people to take to violence. Under the current international legal order the States have the monopoly on use of violence. The State is the only agency that is legally empowered to declare war, punish criminals and take life according to law. The violence of non-state agency is by definition illegal and therefore criminal. However as experience worldwide shows the States invariably respond to the violence of the non-state actors with violence. Often the violence of the States comprise of illegal arrests, involuntary disappearances, forcible relocation of populations, torture, rape and custodial killings. Asymmetry of power between the state and non-state actors, disproportionate and exceedingly harsh response of the states and the media projection of the insurgents as terrorists, time and again leads the non-state actors to target soft targets like unarmed civilians, media offices, business centers, restaurants, night clubs, schools, women and children. The UN Security Council Resolution 1566 says "offences within the scope of and as defined in international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature. (http://www.un.org/terrorism). While the violence of the non-state actors of the insurgent groups is invariably categorized as "terrorist", similar actions of the forces of the States are rarely recognized as "state terrorism". Today almost all acts of protest, particularly armed revolts against repressive regimes are being described as terrorist. Protests against the injustice inherent in our society are being de-legitimized. In this process we are also absolving the States from the duty to address the causes of the protest. It seems that with the elimination of the armed groups the causes espoused by them also vanishes.
The triumphalist neo-liberal rulers of the unipolar world are not concerned about social and economic justice. They believe that the market determines all human relations. In their model of free-market-democracy, the State has only a policing function. They argue that free flow of capital, commodities and services will bring prosperity to all -- class differences will be eliminated as all of us will become producers and consumers. The city-state of Singapore has already implemented this model. There is no minimum wage or limits on working hours in Singapore. The migrant wor5kers who work in the factories have no rights. They can not from unions. Nor can they negotiate with the factory owners for better wages and decent working hours. According to reports most of the migrant workers in Singapore live in sub-human conditions. Singapore citizens are no workers. They are the "owners of service firms". As business persons they enter into "free" contracts with those who buy their services. For example, a Singaporean janitor who is the owner of a cleaning service firm is not protected by any minimum wages act. She has to accept whatever the market is willing to pay based on the demand and the supply situation. In Singapore annual income below Singapore dollar 40,000 is exempt from income tax as this level of income is considered just enough for survival. According to official estimates, about forty percent of Singapore residents earn less that 40,000 Singapore dollars a year. Yet, we are told Singapore is one of the most prosperous states in the world. Singapore government is proud of its stable economy and social harmony. Singapore maintains this harmony by disallowing dissent. There are no opposition parties in the city-state. The Singaporeans have no right to form associations other than what is approved by the state. They cannot hold meetings and organize public rallies without the prior approval of the police of the speakers and the contents of their speeches. The political and social order that neo-liberalism seeks to establish has no space for dissent.
The media campaign against terrorism is a part of the effort to project dissenters -- any one who questions the goals of neo-liberalism as anti-progress and a potential terrorist. The campaign strives to convince us that the states need extraordinary powers to destroy these hidden enemies of progress, prosperity and stability. The print and electronic media are tirelessly engaged in task of shaping the public discourse on democratic freedoms and rights to privacy to create wider acceptance of suspension of these hard earned democratic freedoms. The defenders of democratic freedom and human rights are being increasingly portrayed either as a naïve lot incapable of understanding the dangers posed by global terrorism or as sympathizers of terrorists groups.
We know that the mass media mostly takes the side of the State and the ruling elite on issues of security and stability. The neo-liberal media opposes the working peoples' right to strike as it leads to production losses. It is critical of government intervention for price control of essential commodities and subsidies for the poor. It believes that communications, health and education should be handed over to the private entrepreneurs. Yet, the South Asian media by and large takes the side of the security forces whenever there are allegations of abuse of human rights of the ordinary people by these forces. Recently, when under the orders of the Supreme Court of India, the National Human Rights Commission began investigations into 2097 cases of alleged involuntary disappearances in Punjab during the counter insurgency operations in the eighties, a prominent Indian newsmagazines decided that the human rights activists who were assisting the Commission in this work were agents of the Khalistani terrorists. Almost all allegations of rape and molestation of women by the security forces in the countries of South Asia, whether in India's north east, Punjab and Kashmir, in Sri Lanka's north and east and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh were routinely denied by the security forces. Rarely has the media investigated these complaints independently. The only example of such an attempt was by India's Press Council when it sent Mr. George Varghese to investigate the allegations of mass rape of women by Indian soldiers in the village of Konan Pushpora in Kashmir. Mr. Varghese concluded that the allegation of rape was a "figment of imagination" of the Kashmiri terrorists. As it came out that the former editor of Hindustan Times had completed his investigation into the allegation of rape within a period three hours when he visited the village of Konan Pushpora and that too in the company of the personnel of the Indian army. The fact that some of the young Kashmiri girls of Konan Pushpora "giggled" when asked about the allegations of rape, was enough cause for Mr. Varghese to decide that the allegations were false. This collective myopia of the media some time extracts a heavy price. Dhanu, the young Sri Lankan Tamil woman who became the human bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi, India's former Prime Minister was reportedly raped by members of Indian Peace Keeping Force in Jaffana. These allegations were denied. Through her action, Dhanu proved her complaint.
Propaganda is the presentation of untruth as truth. It projects the inconceivable as the possible. However, to succeed propaganda needs the backing of State power. The success of the current media campaign in creating public sanction at the global and local level for derogation of rights and impunity, i.e. non-accountability of Žabuse' of authority in the name of the war on terrorism is the evidence of the mass media's involvement in this war. Propaganda is a tool of war. It aims to demoralize the people. The current media campaign is preying on the sense of insecurity of the middle classes. The worldwide media campaign on terrorism has successfully intimidate us into voluntarily surrendering our hard earned rights to freedom of speech and expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and privacy. The middle classes all over the world are willingly empowering the States to arm themselves with the most draconian laws in the interest of protecting the "civilised people" from the "terrorist" the uncivilized outsider -- the other. We live in a state of what Herbert Marcus called "democratic unfreedom". Undoubtedly the media managers of today have learnt their lesions well from Marshall Macluhan. The mass media is no longer the mirror of the public opinion. The media is the public opinion, the medium is the message.
At present, specific non-Western peoples, cultures, and causes, primarily the Muslims have been identified as the source of terrorism. The people who deviate from or resist subordination to specific Western interests are declared as terrorists. The war on terrorism is mainly targeting the Arab and Muslim political activists who view American policies in the Middle East as detrimental to their interest. The war on terrorism is manifestly based on Samuel Huntington's dubious thesis of clash of civilisations. It propagates the theory of deep cultural divide between the West and the Muslim World obscuring the historical truth that the west learned the science of astronomy, medicine and architecture from the Arab world. Through this war on terrorism, the US led global alliance is putting forward its own script of human history. This script emphasises that western liberal theory, Judea-Christian morality and Max Weberian ethics represent the pinnacle of human civilisation today. It is antagonistic to the idea that civilisation can exist outside the perimeters of liberal theory and western philosophy. It is ordained that all non-Western societies, particularly the Muslim societies, must westernise by adopting democracy, liberalism, and free market systems.
This is clearly not just a war on terrorism. In simple terms it is a brazen endeavour to create a new imperialist world order. In this war the US led power block has chosen the most despotic and corrupt regimes, wherever they govern societies of vital military, strategic, or economic interests to it as their strategic allies. But these are alliances of convenience. They last only as long as the rulers of these societies do not pursue interests, which are inimical to Western capital and security. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the current archenemy of the democracy was once a friend of the US when he fought against the Iranians. In those days it did not matter that he gassed hundreds of Kurds and Iraqis in northern Iraq. Similarly the USA had discovered democratic virtues in Pol Pot of Cambodia, General Suharto of Indonesia and many other such despotic rulers and mass murderers.
These defenders of western civilisation are not shy in jettisoning principles of liberalism, democracy and human rights despite their vocal commitment to spreading and defending Western civilisation. They have demonstrated that it is not the power of the principles; rather it is principle of power that rules supreme in a war. In other words, their so-called commitment to liberalism, human rights and democracy is a ploy to retain the hegemony of the West over the globe. It is evident that the war on terrorism represents yet another fiction that the West is now constructing to strengthen its cultural and political domination of the international legal order, including human rights. As Eric Hobswam has said this is the era of "human rights imperialism".
Since September 11, the United States has enacted and promulgated laws, policies, and measures that have a profound effect on civil liberties in the United States. Some of the measures, such as the executive order to establish military tribunals to try individuals designated as terrorists violate both American constitutional and international human rights standards. Outside the United States, the Bush administration has prosecuted its war on terror without regard to both general international law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law. In other words, the United States views its perceived security interests as a trump against both domestic and international law. No rule of law is sacred in the prosecution of the war against terror.
During the last five decades since the end of the Second World War, and particularly in the period of the cold war the scope of international law of human rights was expanded to address the concerns of equality, justice, tolerance and respect for all cultures. As we know, international law, a product of the era of Europe was created to ensure the hegemony of Europe over the globe. The western bias of international law was challenged by new states and societies who joined the comity of nations as equal partners after shaking off their colonial yoke. The former Soviet Union and the socialist block of countries were responsible for putting the issues of economic justice, social and cultural rights on the agenda of human rights. Women's rights, gender equality and environmental rights were included into the corpus of human rights at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.
The American encroachment on civil liberties has already led other states to assert security as a pretext for denying human rights. The fuzzy and sweeping assertions of national security interests and sovereignty provide the perfect excuse for states to crush dissent. Through its preferred brand of human rights, which denies the right to self-determination and rejects the principles of economic and social justice the USA and its allies are primarily seeking to universalise the cultural and political norms neo-liberalism and the social structures of "free market democracy". They are invoking the doctrine of human rights in the same way as Christianity was invoked by the church to save the souls of the "savages" in Africa, Asia and the new world during the era of European conquest. In the new imperialist war, the discourse of human rights provides the grand narrative that pits savages against victims and their saviours. In this script of human rights, democracy and western liberalism are internationalised to redeem savage non-Western cultures from themselves, and to alleviate the suffering of victims, who are generally non-western and non-European. The images of the savage Taliban, the Al Qaeda, Sadam Hussein and the Baathist Party, the Afghan, the Palestinians and the Iraqi victims mired in pre-modernity, and the American saviours delivering "liberty" on B-52 Bombers, tanks and armoured vehicles put the metaphor in sharp relief. In this scenario America and the European West acting generally under the guise of the United Nations and other multilateral agencies are the saviours of hapless victims whose salvation lies only in the transformation of their savage cultures through the imposition of human rights.
The human rights corpus is being presented as a settled normative edifice, as a glimpse of an eternal, inflexible truth. It is in this sense that the Žother' cultures, which are non-European, have become savages. The advocacy of this American brand of human rights across cultural borders as the only universal culture is cultural imperialism. This agenda of reassertion of American domination of the globe through the use of massive force is already having profound and long-lasting impact on democracy and human rights. More importantly, the war on terrorism has given the United States the ability to narrow the scope of human rights. It allows the United States to define the opponents of its version of human rights as enemies or supporters and sympathisers of global terrorism. In this Žus-and-them' dialectic, the five decades old attempt to reconstruct human rights as a truly universal and a multi cultural corpus is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible.
In the context of South Asia the global war on terrorism is producing the logic of creating alliances along an anti Islamic axis e.g. Israel, India and the US. It is empowering anti-terrorist (anti-democratic) regimes. In India and Pakistan September 11 followed by the December 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament opened the floodgates for new anti democratic legislation -- Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Before the December13 incident, opposition to POTA was quite strong. The experience of an earlier anti-terrorist law, TADA had shown how such a law which conferred unbridled powers on the security forces was misused by the ruling elite and how these laws were used to criminalise all forms of dissent. The "terror hysteria" that was created by the Indian mass media after the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament by a group of militants enabled the BJP led ruling coalition of India to define this incident as "war on Indian state". The Indian rulers used the December 13 attack on the Indian parliament building in which all the militants were gunned down, as justification for mobilization of about half a million soldiers and enormous firepower on the borders of India and Pakistan.
The terror hysteria killed the space for any debate or discussion on the nature of the action of the militants, its scope and objective and the proportionality of the Indian response. No one asked as to how the action of a small group with rather limited access to arms and logistics could be called a declaration of war on Indian state. We lost our sense of proportion. Like the media blitzkrieg following the attack on the World Trade Centre twin towers on September 11, which whipped up the most rabid nationalist sentiments in the average American who then bayed for the blood of the enemy and rallied behind President Bush, in India too, with the willing support of the mass media the BJP led ruling coalition was able to push through its agenda of draconian laws and militarisation of India-Pakistan relationship. This was a body blow to the liberal institutions of democracy and protection of human rights in India. (United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which succeeded the BJP led government in India this year, has repealed POTA. However, the UPA government decided to retain the some of the provisions of POTA, which contained definition of "terrorism" and "crime of association with terrorism" as an addendum to another draconian law called Unlawful Activities Act.)
The mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat was a part of the same agenda of spreading fear, dissention and hatred. Through this public display of unrestrained power not only on the streets, but also the demonstration of its control over the institutions and the machinery of the state, the BJP was able to coerce the dissenters into silence. This is the "fascist fix". Fortunately for India a section of the people were shaken by the events in Gujarat. There was an attempt to oppose these neo-fascists forcers, but by then the Muslims of Gujarat had already paid too heavy a price and the core institutions of Indian democracy was dealt a severe blow.
POTA was used against all dissenters. Even an act like putting up anti government posters naming some of the leaders of the BJP as killers of Muslims in Gujarat and Kashmir and calling on the Muslims to resist such a regime were described as terrorism and the young men who put up these posters in the campus of Jamia Millia University of Delhi were accused of waging war against India. In Gujarat where more than 2000 Muslims were killed in March 2002, the state government arrested 240 Muslims under POTA for terrorist activities. Not one Hindu rioter was charged under POTA.
US led coalition is dictating new conditionality for cooperation and support on the ruling elite of the countries of our region every day. The rulers of South Asian countries, whether elected or self appointed are propelled by the pressure of the business community who see themselves as a part of the global economy are increasingly surrendering their political and economic sovereignty to the US led global coalition. Regimes are becoming more anti-people to deliver on the US defined anti -terrorist agenda. In the case of Pakistan, while the US is putting pressure on the government to deliver on the western front it has arguably allowed the Pakistani regime some amount of "flexibility" on the eastern Kashmir front. In the case of India a cynical balancing between India's support to the US war on terrorism at the global level with India's so-called "independent-anti western" stand in WTO. In this game of balancing US interest with the interest of the local regimes, Žnon-interference' in Kashmir is the triumph card that the US uses every now and then to bring the two regimes back to its preferred path whenever they stray a bit far from their assigned roles.
The US led power block would rather have a serving military general as Pakistan's President than a civilian. The USA is supplying sophisticated arms to the Royal Nepal Army in spite of their known record of abuse of human rights of the poor Nepalese people. It is silent about Pakistan's use of colonial laws like the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act against the tribal community of Waziristan where families and entire village communities are being fined and jailed for the alleged terrorist crimes of a single member of the community. The message is loud and clear - all forms of dissent are to be crushed. The unabashed and unbridled exercise of American power over the globe has removed the last pretences of any consensual processes for constructing the universality of rights and the neutrality of the institutions of global governance. All over the world, and as the voting analysis of the latest US Presidential election demonstrates, the forces of religious obscurantism, intolerance, exclusion and militarism are gaining ground. The middle ground voices of sanity are being buffeted by the militants and "iron fist" of the state. The state calls the defenders of democratic freedom "terrorist" and the militants kill the defenders of human rights as they have no use for democracy.
Before the September 11 attacks, the human rights corpus told us that problems of cruel conditions of life, state instability, and other social crises could be contained, if not substantially eliminated, through the rule of law, grants of individual rights, and a state based on constitutionalism. An international order based on liberal nationalism and democratic internal self-determination was seen as possible. Advocates for a truly universal human rights doctrine should seize the moment to underscore these deep and abiding imbalances in power. Human rights thinkers and organisations need to construct a new basis for calculating human dignity, and identify ways and societal structures through which such dignity could be protected or enhanced. Such an approach needs to unearth the social meaning and purposes of cultural practices and norms and then investigate the conflicting positions in that society. Rather than demonising a community or a people the opposing positions need to be carefully examined and compared to find ways of either modifying or discarding the norm or practice without denigrating its practitioners.
It is unlikely that the official guardians of human rights, particularly the permanent members of the UN Security Council may develop some sympathy for the position of those who have critiqued the human rights corpus for its cultural and political biases. It is imperative for us to recognize and understand the implications of the emerging trends - global, regional, national and local clustering around "terrorism and terrorist acts" -- to strengthen democracy and to protect and strengthen democratic rights in our countries. A truly universal corpus of human rights can can help us in removing the imbalances between the West and the Third World. But it will not happen unless Western thinkers and advocates are willing to accept that they do not have the monopoly on defining human rights and the sole right to decide as to how human rights are to be enforced in the Third World. The western human rights and humanitarian organisations need to disassociate themselves from the US led alliance's agenda of military interventions in the Third World countries in the name of protecting human rights. Above all, the western intellectuals and the academia should engage the non-European intellectuals and societies with divergent views in a dialogue so that their contributions are not excluded from our common effort to develop a more universal human rights corpus.
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