The following article is from the French newspaper, Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2002. It looks at the issue of liberty in light of the war on terror. The original article can be found on line at http://mondediplo.com/2002/01/01farewell.
By Ignacio Ramonet
10 January 2002
Everyone agrees that the events of 11 September 2001 began a new era. So perhaps we should look closely at what historical cycles were ended by those events, and the consequences of that. The era we are leaving began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and the subsequent end of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991. This phase of history (which coincided with the rise of free market liberalism) had three much-hyped characteristics: the promotion of democratic government, insistence on the idea of the state based on law, and the glorification of human rights. This modern trinity was an imperative in domestic and foreign policy, repeatedly invoked by commentators. It was not entirely free of ambiguities — is liberal globalisation really compatible with worldwide democracy? But it seemed likely that the trinity would have the support of ordinary people, who would see it as an advance of human rights and law, and against barbarism.
Suddenly, in the name of a supposed "just war" against terrorism, all this has been forgotten. To pursue the war in Afghanistan, the United States has had no hesitation in making alliances with regimes until recently seen as undesirable: Pakistan's general Pervez Musharraf, in office because of a putsch, and the dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. The voices of the legitimate president of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, and of those who defended freedoms in Uzbekistan, failed to reach us from behind their prison walls. Values that only yesterday were regarded as fundamental mysteriously disappeared from the political landscape, and democratic countries took steps backwards in human rights and international law.
A clear example is the whirlwind of anti-libertarian measures in the US. Immediately after the attacks, a system of emergency justice was installed. Attorney-General John Ashcroft pushed through an anti-terrorism law — the "patriot law" — that gives the government powers to arrest suspects and detain them almost indefinitely, deport them, hold them in solitary confinement, open their mail, tap their phones, monitor their email and search their homes without a warrant. Some 1,200 foreigners have been secretly arrested, and more than 600 are still in prison, although no court has found them guilty. Many have not been brought before a judge and they have been denied access to lawyers (1). The US government has also announced its intention to interrogate 5,000 men between 16 and 45, currently in the US on tourist visas, who are regarded as suspect just because they come from the Middle East (2).
Even though the US already has an adequate system of ordinary courts (3), on 13 November President George Bush announced the establishment of military tribunals with special procedures, designed to try foreigners accused of terrorism. Trials will be held in secret; they can be held on ships or at military bases; sentence will be passed by a board of military officers; a full majority is not required to impose the death sentence; there will be no appeal against sentencing; conversations between defendants and their lawyers can be monitored; the proceedings of these tribunals will be covered by rules of confidentiality and details will only be available to the public decades later.
FBI officials have even gone so far as to suggest that defendants be extradited to friendly countries with dictatorial regimes, to be interrogated by police with methods that are "crude but effective". The use of torture has been openly called for in the mainstream press (4). Speaking on CNN, Republican commentator Tucker Carlson was explicit: torture was not good, but terrorism was worse, so in certain circumstances torture was the lesser evil. Steve Chapman, writing in the Chicago Tribune, pointed out that an apparently democratic state such as Israel had no hesitation in using torture on 85% of its Palestinian prisoners (5).
Reversing a 1974 decision banning the CIA from assassinating foreign political leaders, Bush has now given the agency a free hand to undertake any secret operations necessary for the physical elimination of the al-Qaida leadership. Ignoring the Geneva Conventions, the war in Afghanistan has been conducted in the same spirit: members of al-Qaida were killed even where they had surrendered. Rejecting suggestions of surrender or negotiated settlement, Donald Rumsfeld favoured killing Arab prisoners who had fought with the Taliban. More than 400 prisoners were massacred in the rising at the Qala-i-Janghi fort near Mazar-i-Sharif and it is likely that even more were killed in taking the Tora Bora tunnel complex.
To prevent US military personnel being brought to trial for operations conducted on foreign soil, Washington has been hostile to the idea of an International Criminal Court (ICC). In the same spirit, the Senate has just approved a first draft of the ASPA (American service-members' protection act), which would enable the US to take extreme measures — even invading a country — to recover any US citizen likely to be brought before a future ICC.
As part of the "world war against terrorism", other countries — including the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and France — have also introduced repressive legislation. Defenders of civil rights have good reason for alarm. What had seemed to be a general movement in our societies towards a greater respect for individuals and their liberties has been abruptly put on hold. Everything suggests a police-state future.
- El Pais, 10 November 2001.
- Le Monde, 30 November 2001.
- International Herald Tribune, 1 December 2001.
- See Newsweek, 5 November 2001.
- Quoted in El Pais, 7 November 2001.
Translated by Ed Emery
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