By Jamie Barton*
9/11 has reshaped diplomacy. When security concerns press the U.S they trump everything else and put issues such as world poverty and environmental degradation on the backburner– but it is the American policy on human rights abroad that has become the first casualty of this new war on terror.
The U.S-led campaign against terrorism has brought a resurgence in realpolitik, as the very nature of this new war requires a great deal of cooperation from other countries. This provides an opportunity for many countries to attempt to take advantage of American desperation to respond to 9/11, while those countries with strategic value for the U.S which were previously outside the sphere of influence saw a marked shift in American attitude towards them.
Pakistan, for example, was viewed with great mistrust by the U.S pre-9/11. Not only was it a military autocracy, it was supporting religious extremists in Kashmir and had tested nuclear weapons. But Washington needed Musharraf’s assistance in toppling the Taliban regime, so within days a new, close relationship between the two countries was forged. The U.S lifted its sanctions on the Central Asian country and gave it a guarantee of aid, arms and enduring friendship.
The speed of this turnaround in policy was startling but mutually beneficial to both states: the U.S gets what it desires and the obliging regime is to be contracted more flexibility to handle its own internal opposition and struggles as it sees fit.
This is not a pleasant development, especially for those minorities and political opponents who live under authoritarian regimes across the globe.
Pakistan’s newly unbound free hand allowed Musharraf’s military junta, who seized power in a coup, to launch a massive internal crackdown on radical Islamic opposition parties and a brutal suppression of popular dissent against the governments overt cooperation with the Bush administration.
Indeed like Musharraf, the leaders of many nations after 9/11 showed both dexterity and opportunism by using the transformed global security environment to consolidate their positions domestically.
For example, Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad – previously lambasted by the Clinton administration for having his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim tried and jailed – received praise from George Bush for his use of tough anti-terrorism rhetoric and legislation.
Following the Bali bombings in October 2002, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri very publicly signed decrees to crack down on anti-Western terrorism by increasing the power of Indonesia’s security services. The Bush administration then announced it would re-establish financial and training support to the military of the largest Muslim nation in the world, while also boosting its aid to the police. Concurrently, the Indonesian army and police stepped up their repressive activities against nationalists in Aceh and West Papua: the two resources rich provinces at either end of the Islamic republic that have maintained a strong struggle for independence.
Nationalist movements, including the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, are now increasingly able to be branded and labelled as Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists by certain regimes who have wandered into the American inner circle since 9/11 and are now able to brutally suppress them to somewhat muffled at best, if not inaudible criticism from Washington.
America’s two biggest rivals on the world stage, Russia and China have similar positions in substance and motivation in terms of the war on terror. Both regimes, renowned for the lack of political freedom and their poor human rights records seek to limit American strategic influence in Central Asia, and have sought to profit from 9/11 in exactly the same way: being exempt from U.S criticism for consolidating their own positions domestically due to Bush’s overreaching need for allies and in exchange for intelligence sharing and general cooperation in the fight against terror.
Beijing, surprisingly, has a less tougher policy on Islamic separatists in Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan and whose Turkic-Muslim Uighurs resentfully accept Chinese rule. Concerned that the spread of radical Islam in Central Asia will buoy Uighur nationalism, China has reined in separatism by mixing repression with a policy of Han Chinese immigration and relocation that has recast the ethnic composition of the resource-rich region.
Democratic governance has persistently failed to gain traction in China - a state lambasted for its human rights record. The Communist Party insists on its right to rule and serious public dissent is punished severely as in the case of the four Internet writers whose online calls for reform only brought accusations of subversion and over 10 years in jail each. Elections are limited to local village level and democracy advocates are jailed after behind-closed-doors trials. Unofficial churches are also heavily persecuted and then there is the question of suppression and jailing of pro-independence activists and dissidents in Tibet which has recently been highlighted by the protest in Trafalgar Square. Hu Jintao, who replaced Jiang Zemin as Communist Party chief in November 2002, was a hard-line ruler in Tibet for four years from 1988 to 1992 and is likely to follow a policy of further tying Tibet economically to its Chinese occupier.
It is in the Caucasus though where the suppression of Muslims is as much a cause for resentment in the Arab world as in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
One of the most worrying state of affairs is the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he sees the bloody battle against the Chechens as under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror’ and claiming that Russia is a target of Islamic extremism, warranting Washington’s silence on a subject which, along with human-rights organisations, it used to be very vocal about.
Russia has been trying to pull the small, rebellious mountain republic back into its clutches since the crumbling of the Soviet Union. Two brutal wars waged with disregard for Chechen civilians have left tens of thousands dead, levelled towns and villages and reduced the Chechen people to desperation and dire poverty. Thousands of Russian soldiers have lost their lives and dozens continue to die in ambushes each month, demonstrating the determination of the rebels to break free.
Putin, like Bush, has little political opposition and has experienced unprecedented personal domestic popularity based on crises of violence and terrorism. But with Putin equating his struggle with the Chechens with Bush’s fight against Al-Qaeda, consequent U.S acceptance will identify the United States with Russia’s ruinous war and feed the myth that America cares little about Muslim lives.
The U.S cannot afford to be seen to be doing this - as it already is in regard to Israel and the Palestinians; to conceitedly put its own security before that of the suppressed, disenfranchised poor people of the Arab world. By covering its eyes to acts of state terrorism and repression in certain nations that may prove useful in prosecuting the new war, the U.S will suffer in the long term, only serving to create even more angry young Muslims to carry on the struggle to be heard and to continue the jihad against the seemingly disinterested West.
As the only superpower, the U.S needs to lead the way in rethinking the notion of that overused political lexicon and watchword of the time, security; from being a domestic vote winner and to try to relaunch it to comprise not just American security, but to guarantee security from poverty, as the G8 leaders have vowed to attempt, and suppression for everyone in seemingly friendly tyrannies like the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein once was when Iran was American Enemy Number One.
Such a policy, to try to repair the reputation of America amongst the poor oppressed people, based on encouraging equality and recognition on a base level in societies from North and East Africa, through the Middle East and right through to the Caucasus, would go a long way towards undercutting the draw to terrorist violence against the U.S and its current opulent, arrogant image.
* Jamie Barton is a UK-based journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, the Middle East and global terrorism He currently contributes to several Middle-East online publications and European magazines and newspapers.
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