The Human-Rights Lobby Meets Terrorism

By Karatnycky, Adrian; Puddington, Arch | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Human-Rights Lobby Meets Terrorism


Karatnycky, Adrian, Puddington, Arch, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


In this article,Adrian Karatnycky and Arch Puddington discuss the response of human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to the terrorist attacks of September 11.They look at how most of the human-rights community has treated the question of terrorism in general in recent years, and also how it has treated the US.

IN the months since the September 11 terrorist at tacks on the United States, the world's two leading human-rights organizations-Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch-have been very busy. And so they should have been. International law, to which these organizations are committed above all things, recognizes terrorism as a distinct and uniquely malevolent form of aggression against civilians; and the attacks themselves assuredly constituted a massive and horrendous violation of human rights, unprecedented in the history of the United States.

Yet, from the steady stream of reports, statements, and open letters the organizations have sent to leaders like President Bush and UN SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan, one learns little of this. Although both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued denunciations of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, not once have they spoken about the precise nature of these vicious acts, or called them by their proper name: terrorism. They have raised many concerns, to be sure, but terrorism itself has not been part of their agenda.

To understand what is going on, it helps to have some idea of how most of the human-rights community has treated this question in general in recent years-and also how it has treated the United States of America.

IT TURNS out that the organizations' reluctance to use the word 'terrorism' is not new. One can examine the hundreds of documents that Amnesty International has issued over the years on countries and regions victimized by terror, from Colombia and Kashmir to Spain and Great Britain, without ever encountering a straightforward reference to the term. Instead, one reads of 'brutal' or 'horrific' acts, or of `violent assaults'-phrases that could apply as easily to the aggression of one army against another as to the deliberate murder of civilians by political or religious extremists.

Occasionally, human-rights organizations have resorted to almost comical euphemisms. In speaking of the `war on terrorism,' Human Rights Watch has preferred to describe it as the `war against indistinct enemies.' As for those cases when the word simply cannot be avoided, Amnesty International has invariably placed it in quotation marks, thus implying its own scepticism.

Pressed to explain this policy of evasion, spokesmen for major humanrights organizations argue that the term 'terrorism' lacks a clear definition in international law-which happens not to be the case. There are, in fact, several UN-sponsored agreements, including the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, that speak forthrightly of terrorism as a distinct and widely agreed-upon category of aggression. A better explanation can be found in the human-rights community's profound distrust of the governments around the world that face a terrorist threat-and in the reluctance to acknowledge that security is essential to any meaningful idea of freedom.

It seems that, whatever havoc terrorists may wreak on a society, the more serious human-rights problem in the eyes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lies in the methods that public authorities have adopted to combat these `indistinct enemies.' Nowhere has this attitude been more pronounced than in the way human-rights groups have treated the challenge posed by radical Islam, which everywhere has resorted to terror as a basic tactic. In a revealing statement, Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, observed last May that `violent Islam [today] is the Communism of ten years ago.' By this he appeared to mean not only that radical Islam was a spent force, like Soviet Communism in 1990, but that apprehensions about it were greatly exaggerated, and as likely as not were being invoked by governments only as an excuse for repression. …

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