11 September 2007
The Marriott hotel in Jakarta was still burning when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's security minister, explained the implications of the day's attack: "Those who criticise about human rights being breached must understand that all the bombing victims are more important than any human rights issue."
In a sentence, we got the best summary yet of the philosophy underlying Bush's so-called War on Terror. Terrorism doesn't just blow up buildings; it blasts every other issue off the political map. The spectre of terrorism - real and exaggerated - has become a shield of impunity, protecting governments around the world from scrutiny for their human rights abuses.
Many have argued that the War on Terror is the US government's thinly veiled excuse for constructing a classic empire, in the model of Rome or Britain. Two years into the crusade, it's clear this is a mistake: the Bush gang doesn't have the stick-to-it-ness to successfully occupy one country, let alone a dozen. Bush and the gang do, however, have the hustle of good marketers, and they know how to contract out. What Bush has created in the WoT is less a "doctrine" for world domination than an easy-to-assemble toolkit for any mini-empire looking to get rid of the opposition and expand its power.
The War on Terror was never a war in the traditional sense. It is, instead, a kind of brand, an idea that can be easily franchised by any government in the market for an all-purpose opposition cleanser. We already know that the WoT works on domestic groups that use terrorist tactics such as Hamas or the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Farc). But that's only its most basic application. WoT can be used on any liberation or opposition movement. It can also be applied liberally on unwanted immigrants, pesky human rights activists and even on hard-to-get-out investigative journalists.
The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was the first to adopt Bush's franchise, parroting the White House's pledges to "pull up these wild plants by the root, smash their infrastructure" as he sent bulldozers into the occupied territories to uproot olive trees and tanks to raze civilian homes. It soon included human rights observers who were bearing witness to the attacks, as well as aid workers and journalists.
Another franchise soon opened in Spain with the prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, extending his WoT from the Basque guerrilla group Eta to the Basque separatist movement as a whole, the vast majority of which is entirely peaceful. Aznar has resisted calls to negotiate with the Basque autonomous government and banned the political party Batasuna (even though, as the New York Times noted in June, "no direct link has been established between Batasuna and terrorist acts"). He has also shut down Basque human rights groups, magazines and the only entirely Basque-language newspaper. Last February, the Spanish police raided the Association of Basque Middle Schools, accusing it of having terrorist ties.
This appears to be the true message of Bush's war franchise: why negotiate with your political opponents when you can annihilate them? In the era of WoT, concerns such as war crimes and human rights just don't register.
Among those who have taken careful note of the new rules is Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze.. Last October, while extraditing five Chechens to Russia (without due process) for its WoT, he stated that "international human rights commitments might become pale in comparison with the importance of the anti-terrorist campaign".
Indonesia's president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, got the same memo. She came to power pledging to clean up Indonesia's notoriously corrupt and brutal military and bring peace to the fractious country. Instead she has called off talks with the Free Aceh Movement, and in May invaded the oil-rich province in the country's largest military offensive since the 1975 invasion of East Timor.
Why did the Indonesian government think it could get away with the invasion after the international outrage that forced it out of East Timor? Easy: post-September 11, the government cast Aceh's movement for national liberation as "terrorist" - which means human rights concerns no longer apply. Rizal Mallarangeng, a senior adviser to Megawati, called it the "blessing of September 11".
The Philippines president, Gloria Arroyo, appears to feel similarly blessed. Quick to cast her battle against Islamic separatists in the southern Moro region as part of the WoT, Arroyo - like Sharon, Aznar and Megawati - abandoned peace negotiations and waged brutal civil war instead, displacing 90,000 people last year.
But she didn't stop there. Last August, speaking to soldiers at a military academy, Arroyo extended the war beyond terrorists and armed separatists to include "those who terrorise factories that provide jobs" - clear code for trade unions. Labour groups in Philippine free trade zones report that union organisers are facing increased threats, and strikes are being broken up with extreme police violence.
In Colombia, the government's war against leftist guerrillas has long been used as cover to murder anyone with leftist ties, whether union activists or indigenous farmers. But things have got worse since President Alvaro Uribe took office in August 2002 on a WoT platform. Last year, 150 union activists were murdered. Like Sharon, Uribe quickly moved to get rid of the witnesses, expelling foreign observers and playing down the importance of human rights. Only after "terrorist networks are dismantled will we see full compliance with human rights," Uribe said in March.
Sometimes WoT is not an excuse to wage war, but to keep one going. The Mexican president, Vincente Fox, came to power in 2000 pledging to settle the Zapatista conflict "in 15 minutes" and to tackle rampant human rights abuses committed by the military and police. Now, post-September 11, Fox has abandoned both projects. The government has made no moves to reinitiate the Zapatista peace process and last week Fox closed down the office of the under-secretary for human rights.
This is the era ushered in by September 11: war and repression unleashed, not by a single empire, but by a global franchise. In Indonesia, Israel, Spain, Colombia, the Philippines and China, governments have latched on to Bush's deadly WoT and are using it to erase their opponents and tighten their grip on power.
Last week, another war was in the news. In Argentina, the senate voted to repeal two laws that granted immunity to the sadistic criminals of the 1976-1983 dictatorship. At the time, the generals called their campaign of extermination a "war on terror," using a series of kidnappings and violent attacks by leftist groups as an excuse to seize power. But the vast majority of the 30,000 people who were "disappeared" weren't terrorists; they were union leaders, artists, teachers, psychiatrists. As with all wars on terror, terrorism wasn't the target; it was the excuse to wage the real war: on people who dared to dissent.
This comment was published on Thursday August 28, 2007