MGG: Human rights and the Gulag of Guantanamo Bay
By M.G.G. Pillai
28/1/2002 1:32 am Mon
Human rights and the Gulag of Guantanamo Bay
Afghanistan has tripped more powerful nations than the United
States. Since Alexander the Great conquered parts of it in the
4th century BC, none, including Great Britain and the Soviet
Union, could hold on to the country for long. Its history is a
continuing tale of ultimate defeat of the foreign conqueror.
The latest is the United States, a decade after the Soviet
Union broke up, in part over its disastrous Afghan adventure.
Washington in turn is forced to deny its cherished beliefs upon
which it was founded, for an insult it could not stomach -- the
terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the centre of US global
economic power and its military war centre.
It is in its euphoric cheerleading phase, patting itself for
how speedily it routed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with a handful of
battlefield deaths, how its advanced weaponry wreaked havoc on
the "enemy", how wonderful it is to be American, not that it put
its own satrap government in power in Kabul, how quickly it
brought governments around to heel.
Democracy is around the corner in Afghanistan, we are
assured, and her new tourism minister announces grandiose plans
to rebuild the Bamiyan statues which the hated Taliban blew up in
fundamentalist Islamic righteousness. And how safe it is now for
tourists in Afghanistan. And this from a government whose writ
does not extend a few kilometres beyond Kabul, the capital!
There are international conferences galore to show the world
would shoulder its responsibilities to put Afghanistan on the
path to freedom and democracy. But like in previous attempts
elsewhere in the world, these promises are ignored once the
attention shifts. The aid comes in useful only for what
contracts can be got from that: the speed with which Britain
sent its troops, hated as they are for their role in the past, is
to cadge as much of the economic and industrial projects.
What the United States does now is what the Soviet Union did
in Kabul in the 1970s. There is no difference, in the history of
AFghanistan, between Moscow's Babrak Karmal and Washington's
Hamid Karzai, the US nominee.
The US, like Moscow, sided with one faction of a fratricidal
civil war, and forced a peace no one is happy with. The interim
government cannot set up roots because Karzai is foisted upon the
warlords, all in control of their fiefdoms. For a short while,
under the Taliban, they had to lick their wounds; they now
return with a vengeance. The British, the Soviets and other
invaders in history could not handle them; Washington could not
Revenge and military courts
It is in this context one must view the setting up of the
Gulag at Guantanamo Bay. Washington wants revenge, and it wants
it its way. The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, makes no
bones of that: the Afghans and others it captured are not PoWs,
and they would be tried in military courts outside the US
boundaries under conditions that deprive them of the rights one
should expect in a fair trial.
It is courts like this elsewhere in the world that draws the
US state department's ire. It does not mince its words in its
annual reports of human rights in distant countries which fall
foul of its definition. In its report for 2000, it was
particularly harsh on Egypt for using military courts to try
civilians, albeit terrorists.
"The use of military courts" it thundered, "to try civilians
continue to infringe on a defendant's right to a fair trial
before an independent judiciary ... while military judges are
lawyers, they are also military officers appointed by the
Ministry of Defense and subject to military discipline. They are
neither as independent nor as qualified as civilian judges in
applying the Penal Code." One would like to see what its report
for 2001 would say of this continuing pratice which sent at least
70 to their execution, and hundreds to prison.
President Hosni Mubarak cannot contain himself that the US
accepts his flawed and arbitrary standards in dispensing justice.
Malaysia, like Egypt, is happy the US conforms to its standards
of cruelty and human rights it had long espoused. It allows
governments around the world to jump on the bandwagon of reduced
rights for their citizens.
The US war on terror narrows democratic options for the
opposition in many countries. Even in relatively democratic
Malaysia, the government rushes to condemn the opposition as akin
to Taliban and worse for no reason than to hold on to office by
fair means or foul. It has become, for many, the next national
evil after communism.
Even Britain feels the heat. The Britons in the Gulag could
face death. So it pleads for special treatment for them. There
is an American among those detained. He gets special treatment
too: he is charged in an American court with all the guarantees
denied the others in Guantanamo Bay. All others not from these
two nerve centres of civilistion are not worth bothering about.
In other words, there is one law for us and another for
them. The European Union is incencsed at this blatant
discrimination, and puts enough pressure on the US that it
relents. It has since suspended the transport of the "unlawful
combatants". But neither Britain nor the United States addressed
the patent unfairness of it all when it seeks special treatment
for its citizens but not for the others.
In search of a new enemy
The United States, throughout its history, needed an enemy
it can focuss upon. For four hundred years since the Salem witch
trials, it was the Roman Catholics; exorcised only when
President John F. Kennedy was sworn in. The blacks came next.
The civil war required them to be made free by the side which
won, but it took another 99 years after President Abraham
Lincoln's Emancipation Declaration before the Civil Rights Act of
1964 freed them.
The Cold War produced communism, President Reagan's Evil
Empire. But that is no more. It is now Islam, though it is
artfully and disinegenously packaged as a war against terror, but
one which would become convoluted and self-defeating as it
Like all such campaigns it is focussed on one man, and that
is its public relations problem: If one man, Osama bin Laden,
could cause much havoc on not just the United States but sundry
countries around the globe that they see Islamic fundamentalists
behind every corner, what happens next is unpredictable.
It highlighted Muslim anger at unresolved issues like
Palestine because the United STates, if not the West, would not
want them resolved. The more this happens, the more righteous
the Islamic hurt is viewed by the rest of the world.
So the battle is neither, yet, won nor lost. It cannot, when
President Bush nor his allies cannot define what they fight for.
He needs another foreign adventure to sustain his legislative
control. The war in Afghanistan was fought as a bully would a
weak man. But the weak nation is not weak but helpless. The US
interfered in a civil war, and its side won. As Moscow in its
Washington opens too many fronts, which it hopes would be
fought by satrapies and allies. But this remote control battles
gives added strength to those targetted. And lay the groundwork
for future wars. The human spirit cannot be extinguished by even
Which is why the arrogance Washington displays is no
different from Moscow's, or Britain's in its heyday. The US has
forgotten Afghanistan, except as a public relations exercise.
What it wrought there only adds to the horrific presence of
deadly antipersonnel mines and gadgets to harm AFghans decades
after all this is over. As in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
No US president since World War Two has offered to undo the
damage he wrought on Third World countries. Only one, President
Truman, did help with the Marshal Plan, but that was for Europe,
not a third world country. What makes this so frightening is
that there is no power, as the Soviet Union in the past, to
challenge it now. That should worry us all.