November, 3, 2003 Updated: 03:42 am
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Weapon of mass oppression

Suhas Chakma


Two years have passed since the 9/11 strikes in the United States. However, the terrorist attacks continue. The United Nations Security Council has adopted a number of resolutions condemning specific terrorist acts such as September 11, 2001; the bomb blasts in Bali on October 12, 2002; the hostage-crisis in Moscow on October 23, 2002; the bomb attack in Kikambala and the attempted missile attack on an airliner departing Mombassa, Kenya, on November 28, 2002; and the bomb attack in Bogota, Colombia on February 7, 2003. It appears that the colour of the victims is crucial to meriting the UN's condemnation.
   
There is no doubt that states have legitimate reasons, and the right and duty, to take measures to eliminate terrorism and bring the perpetrators of such acts to justice. However, the counter-terrorism measures adopted post-9/11 have often been taken without any respect for due process of law and rule of law. In the name of a "war against terror", the state terrorism witnessed against communists in the 1960s and 1970s and against pro-democracy activists in Latin America in 1970s and 1980s is presently being replicated across the world.

Post-9/11, we have failed to resolve the contradiction inherent in the aphorism: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". This complexity is reflected in the UN's failure to arrive at a universally accepted definition of terrorism. The General Assembly, tasked with drafting a comprehensive treaty against terrorism, is presently grappling with the issue. Loose and broad definitions of terrorism are being used to silence even peaceful dissent.

Since September 11, 2001, a large number of countries adopted opportunistic anti-terror laws. India rammed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act by holding an extraordinary joint session of Parliament. After a year, the highest number of detainees is not from Jammu & Kashmir, the central focus of India's war against terror, but Jharkhand where alleged terrorist detainees include people as young as 12 years and as old as 81 years.

China immediately intensified "Operation Strike Hard" in Xinjiang and amended its Criminal Procedure Code to strike at terror. Malaysia increased the application of its Internal Security Act. Singapore adopted its own anti-terror laws. Thailand has recently joined the bandwagon. Even Tonga, a tiny kingdom in the Pacific, amended its Criminal Offences Act on October 16, 2002, to define "terrorism" as "an act which is intended or can reasonably be regarded as having been intended to seriously destabilise or destroy the fundamental, political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country". The amendment has more to do with stifling the pro-democracy movement than confronting "terrorism" in Tonga.

All these anti-terror laws have similar draconian features which do not meet international human rights standards. They empower the state to hold the accused for a prolonged period of detention beyond the permissible limits under the normal criminal procedure code without charging him, and effectively subvert the cardinal principle of the criminal justice system - presumption of innocence - by putting the burden of proof on the accused, withholding the identity of witnesses, making confessions made to the police admissible as evidence, and giving the public prosecutor the power to veto bail.

The US went a step further by setting dangerous precedents for the criminal justice system and showing disrespect to international human rights and humanitarian laws. It has not clarified the legal basis of detention and the exact legal status of individual detainees - "enemy combatants", quasi-"prisoners of war", "war criminals" or "terrorists". The detainees held at Guantanamo Bay have not been formally charged with any crime and are being tried by military courts. Not surprising Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad articulated the position of authoritarian regimes during his visit to the US in May 2002: "The United States now appreciates some of the things we have done as being in the national interest."

Those who have opposed such repressive measures have paid a heavy price at the national and international levels. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson was not given another term after earning the wrath of the Bush Administration for her call to halt the bombing of Afghanis-tan to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians. She also asked for an inquiry into the massacre of Taliban soldiers at Mazar-e-Sharif. Other 'sins' were her vocal stand against the treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and expression of alarm at discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in the West.

While Ms Robinson lost her job, her successor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who also unequivocally called for "upholding rule of law and respecting human rights" in the war against terror, lost his life in a terrorist attack on the UN building in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. Who could deny that colonialism and occupation are one of the main reasons for terrorism?

There is no evidence that unlawful counter-terrorism measures could have prevented terrorist attacks. There is no substitute to intelligence-gathering. Political statesmanship is crucial to reddress the conditions in which terrorism breeds. Short-circuiting of justice provokes men to take up arms and blurs the distinction between those who are contemptuous of the law and those who preach the values of democracy, rule of law and due process of law. Consequently, the world is gradually regressing to medievalism.


 
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