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MGG: Human rights and the Gulag of Guantanamo Bay
By M.G.G. Pillai

28/1/2002 1:32 am Mon

26 January 2002

Human rights and the Gulag of Guantanamo Bay

M.G.G. Pillai

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 now.

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 continues.

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 heyday.

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 nuclear weapons.

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.

M.G.G. Pillai