Preti Taneja is a freelance human rights journalist who works with NGO Minority Rights Group International. She has written on the plight of the Batwa people in the Great Lakes region of Africa, on human rights in film and theater, and on the future status of Kosovo. She is currently writing a report on minority communities in post – Saddam Iraq.
Since the "war on terror" was declared five years ago, the Bush administration has shown the world that human rights can be compromised in the name of counterterrorism. Minority communities around the globe have suffered as a result.
Other countries have followed America's example, using the climate of fear fueled by "war on terror" rhetoric to justify racism, asylum denials and detention center persecutions.
No one is disputing the duty of a government to protect its citizens. But the "war on terror" is predicated on the idea that anything is warranted in the name of this protection. There is a danger that the fear of terrorist attacks, coupled with our instinct for self-preservation, will influence us to allow governments unrestricted manipulation of our laws.
After 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice almost immediately made controversial changes to the Material Witness Act that allowed it to be used to secure the indefinite detention of possible terrorist suspects. Other overreaching measures include arbitrary arrests, secret detentions of noncitizens (often members of minority communities in the U.S.), secret deportations of suspected terrorists, reported abuse of detainees held without trial in Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere, and detention of U.S citizens designated as “enemy combatants” without charge or access to legal representation.
Canada also changed its laws in response to 9/11. Representatives from Arab and Muslim groups stated that, as a result of modifications to the Anti-Terrorism Act, many in their communities felt ”singled out and humiliated by their government,” according to a 2004 survey by the Canadian Department of Justice. They also reported harassment of Muslim students by police, and surveillance of people and charities. Other minority groups, including African Canadians, believed that the Act promotes racial profiling, in particular of young non-white males, and fuels racism against black- and brown-skinned communities, who have become fearful of wiring money to their families abroad. Unfortunately, immigrant communities are most likely to be ill-informed of their rights and the provisions of the ATA.
For its part, the United Kingdom passed the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act in 2001. This law undermines fundamental human rights protections, including the right to seek asylum and prohibitions against arbitrary detention and mistreatment. The U.K. has also opted out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including Article 5, which establishes procedural guarantees that govern the right to a fair trial.
The U.K. based its argument for opting out on the global threat of terrorism. In December 2001, during questioning by the Human Rights Committee, the U.K. invoked the U.N. counter-terrorism resolution of September 28, 2001, claiming it took precedence over the country’s obligations to the Human Rights Committee.
In 2002, Amnesty International reported that “most, if not all, of the ATCSA detainees are either asylum-seekers or have previously been recognized as refugees in the U.K.” Last year, British Transport police statistics revealed that Asians were five times more likely to be stopped than whites. In the month following the London bombings, they had apprehended 2,390 Asian people. None was subsequently charged. This year, U.K. Home Office figures showed that, since 9/11, almost 950 people were arrested under anti-terrorism charges, the majority of them Muslim.
In the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization raided the homes of 40 Australian Muslims in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, but never filed any charges against the occupants. New South Wales Council of Civil Liberties President Cameron Murphy said that on the surface these incidents looked like a campaign of harassment, and that the raids were nothing more than a “fishing exercise or publicity stunt.” In March 2003, Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission listened to the experiences of more than 1,400 Arab and Muslim Australians and found that a majority felt that there has been increasing racist, abusive and violent behavior against them since 9/11.
While the ”war on terror” primarily targets Arabs, Muslims and those who are lumped in with them, such as Sikhs, it is also used as a pretext to justify the same rights abuses and repression that have been going on for decades in all parts of the globe. It gives a further reason to eradicate legitimate political and social opposition—often by minority communities—and to carry on persecutions, now with the U.S. government’s blessing.
The violent repression of Muslim Uighurs in China, the ongoing denial of rights for Kurds in Turkey and the Russian occupation of Chechnya have all violated international human rights obligations and have all been explained away as a contribution to the ”war on terror.” All three countries lost civilians as the Twin Towers fell, and all have substantially supported the "war on terror" in the aftermath. There has been a distinct silence from the U.S. and U.K. in the wake of these abuses.
China, Turkey and Russia are not the only ones: the same has happened in Pakistan, Indonesia and India. According to Theodore McDonald, lecturer in Anthropology and Social Studies at Harvard, in many places in Latin America, the term "terrorist" has replaced "communist" as a means to justify suspension of the basic rights of indigenous people and to avoid dialogue over ongoing issues such as land and resources.
Thus, the ”war on terror” has created a terror of its own—as violations against minorities mount, so too does the silent terror of unaccountability. When George W. Bush first used the phrase, he gave himself and all other heads of state the freedom to act without restraint and a cast iron defense for their misdeeds. Minority communities of all ethnicities and religions have suffered, stalked by the fear of expressing themselves, of practicing their religion, of speaking out against human rights abuses they suffer to avoid the “terrorist” label. The ‘”war on terror” has created another layer of silencing on top of what these communities were already routinely experiencing, and has unalterably changed the way many of them live and act in the world. It has, unfortunately, contributed to the further radicalization of immigrants and minorities in Western societies, the full impact of which has yet to be felt.